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Hearing pits cultural programs against each other

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on March 31, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
March 31, 2011 12:27 pm

At a hearing today on a plan that aims to save the history museums in Tacoma, Spokane and Olympia by merging them with other cultural and arts programs, critics focused on the plan’s potential effect on the State Library.

The library would be consolidated into the new Department of Heritage, Arts and Culture under Rep. Jeannie Darneille’s bill. It would be funded in part by money that otherwise would be set aside for future construction of a new building to house the library and history-related programs.

Library supporters said it’s working well in its current home, Secretary of State Sam Reed’s office, and shouldn’t move to a new agency. Some also worried about snatching money from the planned building on the Capitol Campus, the Heritage Center.

The audience at the hearing was full of patrons of the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library, a part of the State Library that serves the blind.

Among the users of the downtown Seattle braille library’s 459,000-item collection is Greg Jack of Olympia, who has used it since he was a boy growing up in Spokane. Jack checks out several books a month, both audiobooks that he downloads and braille books that come by mail. Just now he’s reading Typee by Herman Melville.

Jack worries about the effect of budget cuts on services like the braille books produced locally by volunteers, but he and other patrons don’t think combining it with other agencies is the right solution. Patrons are involved with the agency through a patron advisory council, and Jack wonders if their voice will remain effective if the library becomes “part of a bigger bureaucracy,” he said.

Similarly, Reed told lawmakers he hates to think what would happen if the braille library were “put into the bowels of a mega-agency.”

There were a few voices of support among backers of the State Arts Commission that Gov. Chris Gregoire has called for eliminating and the State Historical Society and Eastern Washington State Historical Society whose museums Gregoire has proposed mothballing. All would survive under Darneille’s proposal.

Greg Pierce, a lobbyist for the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, called it a “creative solution” to save the Tacoma history museum that Pierce said educates thousands of students every year.

The committee could vote Friday, determining whether the turf war will continue between supporters of the threatened programs and the yet-to-be-built Heritage Center.

Reed called grabbing money from the Heritage project an ill-advised “light bulb snatch,” while others said it makes sense to take the money to fund today’s needs.

“It’s illogical to defund the State Historical Society,” said Lauren Danner, former director of the State Capital Museum, “while setting aside money for a new Heritage Center that, even if built, could never be the society’s equal.”

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