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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 6, 2003

State librarian defended

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Members of the state Board of Education came to Virginia Lowell's defense yesterday, calling the governor's criticism of the state librarian unfair and saying that calls for Lowell's resignation are unwarranted.

Virginia Lowell, the state librarian, was criticized for ordering libraries statewide to cut back hours.

Advertiser library photo

"I think that legislators need to understand that she's got a tough job because the libraries are underfunded and have been for several years," said Carol Gabbard, chairwoman of the BOE's Library Committee. "Any decision any librarian would make in that situation is a difficult one."

"I don't think her resignation is warranted."

Lowell has at times rankled citizens and lawmakers alike with uncompromising stands and blunt talk when she believes that the library system has been shortchanged.

Last year Lowell refused to accept donated books to get the empty Kapolei library operating after lawmakers allocated only a fraction of the money she said she needed for the state's newest library.

Most recently she ordered libraries statewide to cut back to five-day, 40-hour weeks following a $500,000 budget cut to her department.

That prompted Gov. Linda Lingle to call Lowell "unprofessional" for failing to keep state libraries open longer hours, and some state senators called for the state librarian's resignation.

Lowell had said it was either cut library hours or close libraries completely and lay off staff.

BOE member Shannon Ajifu called the criticism of Lowell unfair.

"I think she should be assisted, not criticized," said Ajifu. "If she learned to be hard-headed, maybe it's because of her experience in trying to promote the library."

Ajifu said the public has made it clear that libraries are a high priority. Yet the Legislature has underfunded the library system year after year, even as the costs of operating the system have continually gone up, Ajifu said.

"The employees' salaries get raised when they go through the collective bargaining process," said Ajifu. "We don't want to see them not get an increase. But if the budget is going to get cut and the salaries are going up ... what else is she to do?"

Ajifu pointed out that the governor appoints most department heads but the state librarian is chosen by and answers to the BOE.

"The governor can openly criticize the librarian and the school superintendent because she didn't hire them," Ajifu said. "She certainly isn't going to criticize her own people."

Lowell, who is vacationing on the Mainland and is not due back until Monday, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Selected to head the state library system in June 1998, Lowell took over a system already in turmoil because of budget cuts. Former state librarian Bart Kane was fired when an $11 million Mainland book-buying plan intended to cut costs resulted in complaints about the selection and delivery of the books.

She has presided over a beleaguered system amid even more belt-tightening.

Her frustration with the situation has been apparent, as when she discussed the elimination of bookmobile services and the impending cut in library hours.

"It's never again going to be business as usual," Lowell said in February. "We kept asking for money to be made whole. It's never going to happen."

Gabbard said Lowell's approach has at times worked to her disadvantage.

"I do think she needs to be more flexible in how she carries out this mandated budget cut," Gabbard said. "She does need to listen to the concerns of the community."

Gabbard gave the Kapolei reading room controversy as an example of working with Lowell to achieve a workable compromise.

Initially, Lowell had refused to accept donated books from the public to open a temporary reading room at the Kapolei library, which has been empty since the building was competed more than a year ago because the Legislature did not appropriate money to buy books.

Lowell later changed her mind at the urging of Gabbard, and a volunteer-operated reading room with donated books will open March 27.

"I have a feeling this is all going to work out," said Gabbard.

Gabbard and Ajifu agreed that the board has approved of Lowell's handling of the library system and that it has received little criticism about her from the public.

Gabbard said the board would re-evaluate Lowell's performance when her contract expires at the end of June. But she added, "it won't be in light of the criticism."

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8038.