Strapped for cash to keep its airplanes in the sky, the Air Force has slashed funding for its on-base libraries.
Four of them across the country — including the Thomas S. Power Library at Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue — were closed Oct. 1.
Two others have suspended operations until they can be restructured, and 13 more have reduced their hours.
“It's very frustrating for a lot of people,” said Becky Sims of Bellevue, who was the Offutt library director for 16 years. “There's a lot of sadness, a lot of sense of loss.”
The closure of the library cost Sims and five other library employees their jobs and will save the 55th Force Support Squadron $217,000, said Thomas Fahrer, the unit's deputy director, in a written statement. About 30,000 patrons used it during 2012, he said.
Air Force officials in Washington D.C. said final decisions about funding library and other family programs fall to one of 13 major commands that oversee bases and air wings. There are 94 base libraries on Air Force bases worldwide serving 12 million patrons each year, according to the Air Force Library Information Program web site.
Offutt and the other three bases that closed their libraries permanently — Davis-Monthan in Arizona, Nellis in Nevada and Dyess in Texas — all fall under a single command, the Virginia-based Air Combat Command.
The command was unable to provide a spokesman last week to explain the funding cuts, but a Nellis press release in September said the command had eliminated all funding for library services.
The library closings occur as federal budget sequestration imposes $50 billion a year in cuts to the Defense Department for the next 10 years, on top of $40 billion per year already scheduled by the Obama administration.
At Offutt, the 55th Force Support Squadron earlier announced plans to merge the library with the base's education center. That would have allowed the preservation of a few of the library services, including the Air Force Chief of Staff's Reading List books, a computer lab, an online testing center and the children's book collection — although without librarians.
That plan fell through when the money to pay for it never materialized, Fahrer said in his written statement.
“I want to emphasize that all funding options were thoroughly vetted prior to taking this action,” he said. “We are fortunate to live in a community that offers wonderful library facilities and many of the same services within a short distance of our base personnel and military retirees.”
The library shutdown was never publicly announced, except for a brief posting by Sims on its Facebook page.
Ruth Heer, the wife of a retired airman, is the book club facilitator for the Offutt library. She said one club, the Professional Reading Society, primarily made up of retired and currently serving airmen, hasn't met in several months because of the library closure.
But she said another club, the Jane Austen Tea Society, has moved its monthly meetings to the Papillion Library.
Sims said many people believe that e-books can reduce the need for space-consuming books and the bricks-and-mortar libraries that hold them.
“They think everybody's got an iPad, everybody's got an iPhone,” she said. “But when you start looking at it, everybody does not.”
Many of the specialized military texts needed by Offutt military commands aren't available in digital format, she added.
Sims said a base library helps the community in hidden ways, too. She said it's typically the first resource for families who home-school their children — both to meet other home-schoolers and to use the reading materials housed there.
“They connect with the community first through the base library,” Sims said.
Some organizations on base took books that they could use before the library closed. Fahrer said the remaining books will be distributed to other federal government installations or will be recycled if the material is damaged.
Now the 36-year-old brick library building sits vacant and locked. Dead leaves and old newspapers in orange wrappers have piled up on its doorstep. An American flag still stands in the entryway, near a sign on the table that says “Thomas S. Power Library — the past, the present, the future ... and beyond.”