LOS ANGELES — LIBRARIES seem to be one of the most imperiled institutions in a time of recession, but it is also when they inspire extraordinary shows of support.
Consider the case of Flora, Ill., whose residents recently raised $300,000 in 20 months to build a new library at a time of double-digit unemployment.
Or the grade-schoolers in San Diego, who trooped before the city council to plea for a reprieve from funding cuts, with one 11-year-old concluding tremulously: "Please, please don't close the libaries. I don't want to watch more television."
Last week, Pasadena, Calif., joined the list of communities taking an unusual stand for books. Voters approved a special tax to support their library system - and by a Michener-sized margin. Aided by a grass-roots campaign that had youngsters selling lemonade to raise money and a black church holding a mock funeral to raise awareness, supporters defied California's traditional antipathy toward taxes and garnered nearly 80 percent of the vote.
Now some think that the tax could inspire efforts to stem reductions in public services across the country - and perhaps become a model on how to do so.
"So many communities are in the same bind we are in," says Pasadena author Sidney Kirkpatrick. "This shows that something can be done."
Libraries could use heroics of some kind. While demand for their services is rising, funding has dropped from Los Angeles to Long Island, N.Y. The result is cuts in staff, fewer new tomes on shelves, shortened hours, and even doors closed altogether - something that didn't even happen during the Great Depression.
One-third of Detroit's libraries are now open only part time. Branches in New Orleans are closed Fridays. In Massachusetts, 20 libraries have shut down in six years. Oklahoma City idled its bookmobile.
"The news is not good," says Marilyn Miller, American Library Association president.
In recession-bound California, more than half the school libraries have closed in the past decade. Nine were shuttered in Los Angeles County last year; 11 more will close by year's end.
PASADENA was one of those threatened. Its imposing Spanish Mediterranean main facility faced a cut in services and closure of all eight branches Jan. 1. The new assessment passed last week will raise $1.3 million, enough to restore service to 1989 levels. It will draw $20 more a year from each house, $13 from each apartment, and $147 from each commercial parcel.
Passing such a tax in California is not easy. Because of Proposition 13, the tax-slashing initiative approved in 1978, the vote required a two-thirds majority. Last year, only 15 out of 67 similar assessments intended to pay for police, fire, and other local services were adopted statewide.
To counter those odds, organizers marshalled a network that would have filled much of the Rose Bowl. Children penned letters. Volunteers logged 15,000 phone calls. Elderly residents buttonholed people outside libraries. Pasadena expatriates, both glamorous and literate, lent their names: chef Julia Child, actress Sally Field, author Joseph Wambaugh.
"People in every part of the community feel a very personal relationship with the library," says Fred Register of Save Pasadena's Libraries.
The fealty has always been there. The town was the first in the nation to start a children's library, in the 1890s, and when its modern eight-branch system was laid out, it was designed so that every resident would be within a mile walk of one. Under director Edward Szynaka, the library launched literacy and outreach programs. It serves as part community center, part Information Age depot. Sixty percent of the city's residents hold library cards.
Among those who appreciate its assets are people who opposed the levy. The local newspaper, some business interests, and others argued that the institution should be saved, just not with another tax. One danger as they saw it - and still do - is that special interests might be inspired to come up with all kinds of ideas for levies.
"Next time it might be for schools or parks," says Janet Whaley of the local Chamber of Commerce.
A Gallup Poll released last week showed that the public supports giving libraries twice as much funding as they get now. Whether any other communities will take the approach of Pasadena, a town up to now known for its Tournament of Roses, not Tolstoy, remains to be seen.