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Monday, January 28, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Legislature 2002

Reading the library its last rites?

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

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OLYMPIA — If Gov. Gary Locke succeeds in closing the Washington State Library to help balance the budget, he'll face a host of questions, not the least of which will be: Who'll take over the library's services, and what will happen to its 3 ½ million books and other archival materials?

"It's like Humpty Dumpty," argues state librarian Nancy Zussy. "If the state library is eliminated or broken up, you cannot reassemble it again. It is unrealistic."

The library, with $9 million a year in state money, has become one of the focal points in Locke's efforts to close a shortfall in the biennial budget of more than $1.2 billion.

Laboring under a recession and initiatives that have raised spending and cut taxes, the governor has proposed more than $500 million in spending cuts and an assortment of new revenue, including tax increases, a new lottery game and spending from state reserves.

The library, until recently a low-profile institution, has come out fighting for its very existence.

If the facility were shut down, Washington would be the only state without a state library, Zussy and other backers noted.

The governor's proposal calls for closing the library by October, which administration budget officials project would give library staff time and financing to shut down after the Legislature finalizes the budget around mid-March.

However, library staff says it would take more time, and perhaps more money, to close the operation.

In addition, the millions saved by closing the library — about $5.6 million in the rest of the biennium — is only a drop in the bucket, Zussy said.

The state librarian said Locke acted without sufficient facts.

Not so, said Locke's budget director, Marty Brown. Though programs such as the library are quite valuable, some state agencies have to take a cut, he said.

"Every 5½ million that we don't take from some program would have to be taken somewhere else," Brown said.

Plus, with the Olympia Timberland Library blocks from the Capitol campus, the state library is not a core function, Brown said.

"We talked to legislators and legislative staff and couldn't find a great amount of use," he added.

Many citizens who have not visited the Capitol campus might not be familiar with the library, which until its recent move to new quarters in Tumwater, Thurston County, occupied a site between the House and Senate office buildings.

In terms of walk-in traffic, only about 50 people come in during any given day, compared with 1,100 daily visitors at the downtown Olympia library.

But the library is a unique repository, providing research and information services to the Legislature and state-agency staff. It holds millions of items, including books, journals, microfilms and state and federal documents.

If it were shut down, historian Don Brazier said, there'd be no way he could finish his book on the history of the state's government from the mid-1960s to the present.

"It would be too difficult to come up with the resources," said Brazier, whose long career has included stints as a state representative and chairman of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.

Brazier said he's spent 4,000 hours using the library's collection of newspapers to write his first book, "History of the Washington Legislature, 1854-1963," and to research his current project.

The library is organized to serve a core group of state officials and workers who research public policy, Zussy said. That group numbers upward of 50,000 potential users.

In addition, the library is used by students, historians, genealogists, writers and lawyers who can find everything from old ferry schedules to the first bill passed in the Legislature. Library staff handles a multitude of telephone inquiries, e-mails and faxes.

It also maintains an online-search service called Find-It! Washington, used by about 3,500 people daily to find information about state and local government. The library has 13 branches in state institutions, including Western State Hospital and 10 adult-correctional facilities.

Washington could lose $3 million a year in federal money the state library receives to help develop and support local libraries, said Zussy.

However, Jim Crawford, a budget analyst for Locke's Office of Financial Management, contended the state would find another agency to qualify for the federal money.

About 145 employees now work for the library.

Though Marty Brown, the budget director, said some library employees would have "bumping rights" to other state positions, Zussy worried that many librarians would not find new jobs in such a specific field.

Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, questioned how the state will physically close the library.

"You just can't turn out the lights when you are talking about the state library," she said.

Marty Brown, the budget director, suggested one option might be to break up the collection and relocate it to other spots, such as public libraries, the University of Washington or The Evergreen State College.

Handing over some documents to the UW would require an unknown amount of additional space, staff and money, said Charles Chamberlin, UW deputy director of libraries.

Dispersing the library's collection also would make researching harder for patrons, Zussy said.

In December, the state spent $1.5 million to move the library five miles from the Capitol campus to a temporary location in Tumwater so the Senate could use its quarters during renovation of the earthquake-damaged Legislative Building.

That investment would be wasted if the library shut down, said Zussy, and the state would have to find another tenant to pay the $75,000 monthly rent. The state signed a 10-year lease for the Tumwater facility.

But Marty Brown said the state will need about 300,000 square feet of extra office space near Olympia in the next five years. The library's temporary home is about 50,000 square feet.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, was noncommittal on the fate of the library.

"We have to make some very tough decisions," she said. "Generally, we are not taking things off the table."

Sommers said she thought the functions of a library have changed with the growing popularity of the Internet.

But in a recent sample of 197 journal articles requested by the library's patrons in 2001, only five were available free on the Web, said Cathy Turk, assistant director of support services for the library.

Autumn Koepp can be reached at 360-943-9882 or akoepp@seattletimes.com.

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