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Greg Lucas and Patty Wong: Time to invest in our libraries
Guest Commentary

Greg Lucas and Patty Wong: Time to invest in our libraries

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California’s libraries are the hearts of their communities. That’s one reason 23 million Californians have library cards.

But many of California’s libraries are 40 years of age or older, and like everything from power grids to two-lane highways, libraries eventually need to be repaired, renovated or replaced. Old wiring. Lousy plumbing. Non-existent or antiquated fire alarm or sprinkler systems. Restrooms that don’t work for Americans with disabilities. Despite the great love Californians have for our libraries, these conditions exist in far more communities than they should.

The federal government hasn’t helped modernize and revitalize libraries since 1997, but that could change if the Build America’s Libraries Act – H.R.1581 and S.127 – is passed. The legislation would dedicate $5 billion to libraries nationwide, of which roughly $500 million would come to California.

By any measure, this investment is long overdue and National Library Week, which began April 4, is an ideal time to consider how we can strengthen the resilience of California’s communities with a forward-looking approach to meet the challenges and needs of this century.

Our libraries are an essential part of California’s education system. In any given week, there are more than 100,000 different programs conducted in multiple languages, in-person and online, at more than 1,100 public library locations. The 23,000 computer terminals, coupled with the WiFi hotspots and laptops that can be checked out like books, help connect California’s least digitally connected.

But over half the state’s libraries have inadequate technology, broadband connectivity and ADA inaccessibility. Nearly one-third report health and safety deficiencies.

Sixty percent of our libraries report overcrowding. Libraries built 40 years ago didn’t anticipate California’s sharp population growth. A 16,000-square-foot library – especially one without study rooms or a conference room is barely enough to serve a community of 80,000 – let alone 280,000. Library architects working before 2000 could not anticipate the wall sockets that would be needed for phone and laptop chargers.

Nonetheless, there hasn’t been a state bond measure approved to help cities and counties address library infrastructure needs since the $350 million of Proposition 14 in 2000. That was a fraction of the need then. Today estimates are closing in on $6 billion to address local library repair and construction needs.

We likely cannot meet all this pent-up need at once, but we can and must build on local investments in the institutions that provide educational and economic opportunity for all in our diverse state.

San Francisco, for example, has spent $219 million since 2002 on a citywide library branch renovation and replacement program. But major needs remain, throughout the state. The San Diego Public Library system has $43 million in backlogged capital improvements. Sonoma County has $13.2 million in high priority needs at just four of its 15 libraries.

Many members of California’s congressional delegation support the Build America’s Libraries Act, and all of them should do so as we mark the many contributions of California’s libraries this National Library Week.

Investing in our community’s libraries will mean:

  • More community gathering spaces to address elder isolation;
  • Enhanced early learning areas to help toddlers start school strong;
  • A safe, comfortable place to do homework;
  • Technology training rooms to build digital skills; and
  • More jobs for Californians building the libraries of the future.

Libraries and librarians do so much for us now. Think of how much more they can do by investing in their future.

Greg Lucas, California’s 25th state librarian, was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014, Patty Wong is the American Library Association’s president-elect and city librarian for Santa Monica Public Library,


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