“A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” ~ Founding Father James Madison
Libraries are all about access to information. In library advocate Andrew Carnegie’s time, information was housed in books that were too expensive for many people to afford. The National Parks Service writes that Carnegie, the wealthy industrialist responsible for the construction of more than 2,500 libraries in the United States and other countries, believed that a library is the “best possible gift for a community,” because it gives community members “the opportunity to improve themselves.”
Today, information is increasingly available online. But online doesn’t equal free. To access online information, you need hardware — a computer or smart phone — and a network connection. For many of our neighbors, these are impossible barriers. If you’re unemployed or underemployed and struggling to pay rent, feed a family, buy gas or cover medical bills, even if you can scrape together the one-time costs for hardware, the ongoing costs of a network connection can make online information impossible to reach.
That’s where libraries come in. They bridge the digital divide that keeps many people from accessing the wealth of online information that those of us with nearly continuous internet access take for granted. What’s more, librarians are available to help people navigate online sources and identify information that’s reliable and relevant.
But in this difficult economy, libraries are caught between a rock and a hard place. As the economy worsens, community members need libraries more than ever, while library budgets stagnate or are slashed. As the American Library Association recently reported, “A majority (60 percent) of libraries report flat or decreased operating budgets in FY2011, up from 40 percent in FY2009.” The ALA calls this “A pervasive ‘new normal’ of increased demand for library technology resources paired with decreased funding [that has] forced public libraries across the country to scale back on operating hours and access to services, just when resources are most needed.”
A recent ALA study found that more than 99 percent of libraries offer free internet access, and that in many communities, the local public library is a community’s only free internet access source (that’s true of 61 percent of suburban libraries and 73 percent of rural libraries).
Given the squeeze that libraries are experiencing, I’ve been wondering if it’s time for our South Bay libraries to look for economies of scale. Morgan Hill, Gilroy and seven other South Bay communities are served by the award-winning Santa Clara County Library system. But some South Bay communities, like San Jose, Palo Alto and Mountain View, maintain independent libraries outside of the county system.
The squeeze has forced some libraries — like those in San Jose — to reduce hours. It has forced other libraries — like those in the Santa Clara County Library system — to impose a non-resident fee. They’re both difficult and unpleasant choices.
We see a push for regionalization in other areas, like fire protection. Perhaps it’s time to do the same for the South Bay’s public libraries. We might find that regionalizing our libraries allows them to implement best practices, combine resources and reduce duplication, thus lowering costs and allowing libraries to maintain or increase services to patrons. It’s worth studying.
An aside to folks who might extrapolate Gilroy Councilman Bob Dillon’s concern about regionalized fire services to regionalized libraries: Just like Morgan Hill still has its city name on its regionalized fire trucks, it also has its city name on its regionalized local library.
I was surprised to read that Los Altos and Los Altos Hills are considering the opposite approach; they’re studying the idea of leaving the county library system. Advocates posit contradictory reasons for studying this idea, according to a recent Mercury News article. Some think that they’re “subsidizing” the library services of other communities in the county library system with their property taxes; others criticize the county library system’s new $80 non-resident fee as “un-neighborly” and “un-American.” You can’t have it both ways.
I hope that the good people of the South Bay will work together to increase efficiencies at our local libraries and to ensure access to information for all of our neighbors.
“If information and knowledge are central to democracy, they are the conditions for development.” ~ Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan