Public library system
loses a fine leader


State Librarian Virginia Lowell declines an extension of her contract and chooses retirement.

AN illness in her family has prompted Virginia Lowell to retire as state librarian, but her decision was probably made easier by the drubbing she took recently from politicians at the state Capitol. After five years at the helm, Lowell will leave Hawaii searching for another forceful advocate for its 50 public libraries.

Lowell had strong support from the Board of Education, which increased her pay from about $85,000 to more than $100,000 and awarded her a four-year contract in 1999. She took the job in 1998 after Bart Kane, her predecessor, was fired over a controversy involving a contract that authorized a mainland company to select books for the libraries.

Lowell updated computer and Internet services, began popular book programs and provided strong direction for a library system of the future. She also created a new service to comply with an ill-advised federal censorship law governing Internet use in libraries so that parents are allowed to direct what their children can access.

However, continuing budget cuts and intrusive politicians together began to brew a conflict that came to a head earlier this year. Republican senators joined with Governor Lingle to attack Lowell when she was forced to reduce library hours as a result of funding decreases.

The librarian had hoped to distribute the burden equitably without favoring one branch over the other. Sen. Bob Hogue, pushing fairness aside, demanded her resignation when Lowell would not allow a library in his district to remain open for a weekend reading program because it also served a school that needed to be open during weekdays. Lingle publicly derided her as "less than professional" because Lowell chose to handle budget cuts by trimming hours instead of laying off library staff, a choice Lingle herself has made with other state workers.

Lowell's problems with the Legislature go back to its decision to build a library in Kapolei without providing money for its operation. As a result, the $6.9 million building sits empty without books and staff, as Lowell had predicted when lawmakers ignored her request that they fully fund the project from the start.

Kapolei Library is a prime example of problems that develop when vote-hungry politicians meddle in matters that should be handled by capable administrators like Lowell. Legislators chose to short the library system, funding it at $19 per resident compared with a national average of $29, and cannot demand full services from a truncated budget.

Lowell's stubbornness and reluctance to play politics with the Capitol gang hurt her, but she should be commended for putting library patrons at the head of the line. Although her retirement will give her time to care for her mother, Hawaii's public libraries will miss her support.



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