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Usually, it started with a squint.
Would-be patrons arrived at the city of San Diego’s downtown central library Saturday afternoon to find the library closed. They didn’t know it at first, which made sense. Saturday was the first time in 18 years the downtown library has shuttered its doors for a day because the city didn’t have enough money to keep it open.
Signs on the glass doors — official ones put there by the city, handmade ones by a protestor — announced the closure. People squinted through the library’s entranceway to see a dark foyer. Eventually came the recognition they couldn’t go inside. One woman still tried to push open the doors.
Saturday’s closure has been on its way since December when Mayor Jerry Sanders and the City Council resolved a $179 million budget gap, in part by keeping the central library shuttered on Saturdays. Over the weekend, the central library closure went from a paper cut to reality.
Sixty-one people showed up over an hour-and-a-half on Saturday afternoon trying to get inside. A former city librarian protesting the cuts counted another 70 people who had arrived earlier in the day.
Regina Burton had heard about the library’s closure on the radio, but didn’t realize it was happening already. A 42-year-old homeless single mother, Burton planned to copy three chapters of the social work textbook she needed for her City College class. There was an exam Monday and she wanted to study. Her class was using the textbook’s 11th edition, and the central library only had the 4th edition, but that was good enough. She brought her two teenage sons, Meshack and D’Angelo with her.
“I keep telling them education is the way out,” said Burton, who’s staying with her children in downtown’s Cortez Hill neighborhood. “It’s kind of hard to tell them that when you can’t go to the library on a Saturday afternoon.”
D’Angelo followed up. “It’s keeping the rich, rich and the poor, poor.”
The poor and unemployed appeared to be the group most affected on Saturday. Many came to the library because they had no other option for a computer or access to books and newspapers.
Others came because they wanted to pick up books on reserve, return them or just browse. Richard O’Bradoin and his wife Pauline live seven blocks from the library. The 70-somethings planned to spend the afternoon there.
Pauline pointed to a sign hanging on the library door and read it out loud: “A dark library is a crime.”
“Exactly,” Pauline added.
Asked what they were going to do the rest of the day, Richard replied, “We’re going to contemplate our bibliographic museum.”
Library hours in the city have long fluctuated, but the Saturday closure appears to be a recent new low. In 1992, the central library began opening on Sundays, increasing service to seven days a week, a city library spokeswoman said.
Branch libraries have taken a hit, too.
In 2000, individual branches were open for nearly 51 hours each week. December’s budget cuts reduced most branch hours to 36 hours a week. They’d also been cut in 2003 and 2005.
The Library Department lost almost 10 percent of its funding in December’s cuts, the most of any department supported by the day-to-day budget.
Mayoral spokeswoman Rachel Laing said the city has no plans to make further cuts to libraries to close its current $30 million to $45 million budget deficit, which needs to be resolved by April 15. But Saturday closures will persist at the central library until tax revenue returns.
“Public safety, parks and libraries are at the top of the pyramid,” Laing said. “They will be the first areas that we will restore.”
The cuts raise the prospect that the central library’s potential replacement, a new downtown schoobrary, could be shuttered on Saturdays if it opens as planned three years from now.
“If the economy continues to go down and our revenues continue to decrease, there won’t be central library hours on Saturday,” Laing said. “But no one expects that to happen.”
The central library’s current situation was too much for Anna Daniels. Daniels retired as an assistant librarian last year after 26 years working in the city’s library system. On Saturday afternoon, Daniels protested the cuts for 90 minutes and collected signatures of would-be patrons. She plans to send her list to the mayor.
“For me, this is an issue of conscience,” Daniels said. “I could not let an institution that has been open for all 32 years I’ve been here on Saturdays to go dark without it being noted.”
For now, people have to learn how to adapt. Alan Van Sickle, who is unemployed, said he had planned to use the library’s wireless internet to look for a job on Saturday. He still did, but not the way he expected. He sat cross-legged and hunched over a tiny laptop outside the library’s doors. The wireless signal reached that far.