Some cities taking the 'free' out of 'free public library'

America's tradition of free public libraries may be in jeopardy.

This warning was sounded by the Colorado Author's League during a meeting of the American Library Association (ALA) here this week.

The specific case that prompted Colorado authors to raise their voices was that of the Denver Public Library. It recently gained national notoriety by slapping on the highest nonresident user fee in the nation: Those who live outside the Denver city limits must pay $10 for the privilege of each visit to the library . . . unless they purchase a library card, which can cost from $100 to $350 per year.

Arlington Heights Public Library in Illinois also has instituted a nonresident fee, in this case $75 per year. Libraries in Massachusetts and New York, among others, have drastically increased fees for overdue volumes, while those in a number of other states face major budget deficits and are cutting back services drastically.

According to the ALA, the severity of the library-funding shortage varies greatly from community to community. Many libraries are healthy and strong, while some are feeling the economic pinch on cities. However, ''most libraries face the challenge of inflated costs and are having to adjust their budgets accordingly,'' the ALA acknowledges.

Calling free use of libraries the ''cornerstone of the educational and cultural aspirations of our state and our nation,'' Colorado authors - including Clive Cussler (''Raise the Titanic'') and Joanne Greenberg (''I Never Promised You a Rose Garden'') - oppose the fees because ''the library is an essential working tool for writers and others who depend on research for their livelihood. . . .''

''It's not the established writers with best-selling books or who have won Pulitzer prizes that will be hurt. It is the beginning, unpublished author who will suffer,'' argues Mr. Cussler. He lived on welfare after writing two books that did not sell before ''Raise the Titanic'' became a best seller.

The Denver Public Library is one of the nation's major repositories of historic material on the American West. James Michener did a great deal of his research for the book ''Centennial'' here. ''Denver Public Library is a regional resource,'' argues John Dunning, author of four novels.

Yet this library, as most libraries, is supported mainly by local funds. The Denver Public Library has tried to get support from the state Legislature without success. Besides establishing the fee, the library has cut back services substantially. Since the fee has been instituted, the number of people visiting the library has declined, although the number of Denver residents applying for library cards has jumped up significantly. According to the authors, the Denver situation is complicated by a widespread antagonism between Denverites and residents of the sprawling and rapidly growing communities that surround it.

Nationally, there are a number of bright spots in the public library scene, the ALA points out. In Birmingham, Ala., 76 percent of the voters approved a new library tax; in Orange County, Calif., county supervisors voted a 12 percent increase in library operating funds; in Baltimore, a new budget will allow the opening of two new branches and increase the amount the system can spend for new books by 15.6 percent; and in Columbus and Youngstown, Ohio, voters have overwhelmingly approved a new library tax.

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