Last July, Forbes’ website posted an essay by economist Panos Mourdoukoutas. The title: “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money.”
Cyberspace went nuclear. Within two hours, the post had attracted more than 7,500 Tweets, most of them hostile.
Typical response: “no it shouldn’t you moron.”
Reaction was so fierce, Forbes surrendered within hours. “Libraries play an important role in our society,” read the magazine’s apology. “This article was outside of this contributor’s specific area of expertise, and has since been removed.”
Migell Acosta, the San Diego County Library director, noted a surprising fact about this kerfuffle: Mourdoukoutas’ most vociferous critics were patrons, not librarians.
“On the Twitterverse,” Acosta said, “it was all our customers collectively shouting it down.”
Public libraries are among the oldest American institutions, dating back to 1711 when Bostonians were able to browse a book collection in the Old State House. In the 21st century, new challenges have spurred these cathedrals of knowledge to re-invent themselves, becoming far more than hushed, dusty storehouses of ink-on-paper products.
“Books to me are a very small part of our story,” said Misty Jones, director of the San Diego city library system. “We’re that place for exposure to different cultures, and different ideas, and even the use of different technologies.”
Gaining new audiences and adopting new missions without losing core supporters is a balancing act. Yet there are signs of libraries’ continued popularity. For Saturday’s opening of the $21 million Mission Hills-Hillcrest/Knox Library, organizers had sought volunteers to hand-pass the last books from the branch’s old location to its new home, seven blocks away.
Nearly 2,000 volunteers answered the call.
Similar hoopla is expected this summer, when San Ysidro christens a $13.5-million library, a 14,000-square-foot facility, nearly five times the size of the cramped 1942 outpost it will replace.
San Ysidro and Mission Hills-Hillcrest are two of the 35 branches that, anchored by downtown’s central facility, make up the city’s library system. This enterprise enjoys broad support, both public — the city council approved this year’s $55.2 million budget — and private.
Last October, more than 400 people paid $500 each to attend the annual San Diego Public Library Foundation gala. Then they opened their wallets further at the event’s “auction,” in which there were no prizes other than the satisfaction of giving to this civic enterprise.
The night netted more than $500,000.
The county library system — 33 branches, two bookmobiles, four kiosks, a $46.6 million annual budget — is also enjoying boom times. New libraries recently opened in Alpine (2016), Imperial Beach (2017) and, last December, Borrego Springs.
Even in this era of bitterly divided electorates, libraries are endorsed by voters across the political spectrum.
“I’ve had letters of appreciation from people, most recently from Borrego Springs, thanking me,” said Ron Roberts, who wrapped up a 24-year stint on the county board of supervisors this month. “That voice had been a lot louder than any voice saying ‘don’t build libraries.’”
Still, libraries face serious questions:
- Could these public institutions be run more efficiently by the private sector? Last year, Maryland-based Library Systems & Services added the Escondido library to the list of 80-plus libraries it operates across the nation.
- Has the Internet and e-publishing eliminated the need for taxpayer-funded libraries?
- Is circulation in free fall? Five years ago, the average San Diegan annually checked out 5.1 more than five items from the city’s libraries. Today, the average is 3.7.
Similar developments across the Atlantic prompted Tim Worstall, a fellow at a British free-market think tank, to predict that libraries will soon go the way of the dodo.
“Any PC, tablet or smartphone has access to tens of thousands of free titles,” Worstall wrote for London’s Adam Smith Institute last August. “It simply becomes less necessary to have that publicly funded service.”
Leslie Devaney thinks otherwise. The city attorney for Del Mar and Murrieta, Devaney co-chaired the library foundation’s gala last October. She said that the event’s site inside the central library helped ensure its success.
“Once you go there,” she said of the nine-story central library, “you kind of get it. It’s not just books. It’s so much more than that.”
What is a library’s purpose? Some advocates maintain that a key role is to act as a unifying and neutral hub for our increasingly splintered communities.
“It’s a place where everyone can come together,” Devaney said. “Rich or poor, regardless of your political orientation.”
New libraries still devote plenty of acreage to bookshelves, but the latest designs also include spacious meeting rooms. In facilities across the country, these rooms are offered on a first-come, first-served basis to reputable community organizations.
For instance, the “Drag Queen Story Hour.”
Starting in San Francisco in 2015, this loosely organized movement sponsors drag queens in full regalia who read to children. They’ve appeared in places you might expect, like the libraries of New York City and Los Angeles, but also in less likely spots.
When the Putnam County, Tenn., library hosted Drag Queen Story this month, 300 protesters and counter-protesters faced off in the parking lot. Library director Phil Schaller did not attend the event — “I was outside, trying to do crowd control,” he said — but heard that the reading of standard kids’ fare (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Alexandra Penfold’s “All Are Welcome”) was uneventful.
The library didn’t sponsor the event, but its policies mean the facility can be used by variety of organizations — 77 in 2018.
“We have the normal gamut,” Schaller said. “We have the Girl Scouts, say, and we have a biblically centered story hour.”
In San Diego County, library meeting rooms are in constant use. Encinitas’ hilltop library, for instance, hosts jazz concerts; conversational French, Spanish and English instruction; hands-on lessons in 3-D printing; and Red Cross blood drives.
Some of these offerings — toddler yoga classes? — may not have been familiar to Melville Dewey, the pioneering American librarian who created the Dewey Decimal System. But Gina Bravo insists that the public library’s underlying mission hasn’t altered.
“Our model has always been to be open and listen to the community,” said Bravo, director of the new Mission Hills-Hillcrest/Knox branch. “Our model is to be a reflection of our community.”
At this branch, that means there’s a section of LGBTQ literature; a Hobbit-themed children’s section; and ongoing efforts to expose students to professions in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math).
“We’re pairing with UC San Diego and leading companies, building a program for high schoolers to learn different levels of skills,” Bravo said. “There will be internships that could lead to some sort of certification or letters of recommendation for jobs.”
At virtually every branch, there’s after-school tutoring for students of all ages. The county system even runs “library high school” for adults. Last year, 16 men and women graduated with accredited high school degrees. The program is free.
“We even pay for the diploma,” Acosta said.
In this “fake news” era, libraries stand out for their ability to reach a broad audience. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that 40 percent of Americans place “a lot” of trust in libraries as a source of information, and another 38 percent expressed “some” trust.
The combined 78 percent topped every other institution, except health care providers, who scored a total of 83 percent
And millennials are even more positive, with 87 percent agreeing that libraries help them “find information that is trustworthy and reliable.”
Privatizing: A Mixed Record
If you look at other agencies, public libraries are relatively inexpensive. San Diego’s police department’s budget is more than eight times larger than the city library budget. Even parks ($150.6 million for the current fiscal year) far outstrip libraries ($55.2 million) as a drain on municipal coffers.
Looking strictly at the bottom line, though, these systems are not cheap. In 2017, the Escondido City Council voted 4-1 to outsource the operations of its library, arguing that this would save taxpayers money.
“This contract is performance driven with very strong accountability measures,” then-Mayor Sam Abed said during an October 2017 meeting, “and it also protects the city’s control and public interest.”
In January 2018, Library Systems & Services assumed control of the Escondido library. It’s unclear whether this experiment is working — calls to city librarian Patricia Crosby went unanswered, as did inquiries at the offices of LSS.
Escondido’s Roy and Mary Garrett sued the city, arguing that the council’s vote violated laws requiring any changes in day-to-day operations to be approved by the library’s board of trustees.
“And the board had voted 5-0 against awarding a final contract to LSS,” said Alan Geraci, the Garretts’ lawyer.
The library’s fate became an issue in last year’s election, which saw Abed’s defeat and a new council winning office.
LSS has a mixed track record. The Santa Clarita library system dropped the company last year, citing declining patronage and difficulty in attracting new staffers. In Oregon, the Jackson County system plans to cancel its contract with LSS this June.
But the company’s website touts its experience elsewhere, such as Redding, where visits have increased by 503 percent and circulation by 73 percent since it assumed operations in 2007.
Still, former supervisor Ron Roberts doubts that outsourcing library services will become a popular model across the county.
“I don’t remember there being any significant argument of that sort,” he said, “anybody testifying to that.”
Libraries, though, must evolve to survive. “If you just sit there and say ‘I’m going to be a traditional library,’ you are going to die,” he said.
While San Diego city library has seen circulation of traditional books declining, director Misty Jones said that has been offset by rising levels of e-book and audio book borrowing. In the last four years, e-circulation has almost doubled.
“We continue to see that go up,” Jones said.
Also rising: total visitorship and attendance at programs. And while the use of the system’s in-house desktop computers is falling, Jones argues that this is because more visitors arrive with their own laptops or other devices capable of accessing the Internet.
“Our in-house WiFi use,” she said, “has shot through the roof.”
Branches are also trying to strengthen ties with the surrounding communities, especially in traditionally under-served areas. At the Malcolm X Library in Valencia Park, for instance, there are computer classes and a “maker lab” for teens.
“When you talk about science and tech jobs and how minorities and women are under-represented in those fields,” Jones said, “it is not because they are not interested, it is because they are not exposed. We are trying to be that safe environment where people can be exposed to that.”
Branches that give to its local residents often find the residents give back. The new San Ysidro library was approved only after a long lobbying campaign by residents, who sometimes showed up to city council meetings by the busload.
When the library foundation organized a campaign to drum up donations for the branch, they figured a reasonable goal was $50,000.
They ended up raising $525,000.
“I was so moved by the pride and camaraderie people here shown toward their library,” said the foundation’s Ingrid De Llamas. “They really see it as an equalizer between the haves and the have nots.”
That was the story of her father, Lloyd De Llamas. Now a Los Angeles-area developer, he grew up in San Ysidro. In the 1950s, he spent many afternoons studying in the San Ysidro branch.
“He always credited the library with helping him on his educational path,” Ingrid De Llamas said. “My dad felt he wanted to create an opportunity for kids like he had received, to lift themselves out of poverty.”
The family’s $1.5 million donation was a factor in the San Diego City Council’s decision to approve the new San Ysidro branch. Similar, the Mission Hills-Hillcrest/Knox branch was also fueled by numerous small gifts and two large donations, $5 milllion from the Hervey Family Fund and another $5 million from the Harvey and Bessie Knox Memorial Fund (both of these funds are held at the San Diego Foundation).
In the Information Age, books and other resources are not contained solely in buildings, no matter how appealing or welcoming. You can order books through Amazon, stream movies on Netflix, review magazine articles online.
You can do all that, if you have the money.
“With the library,” said San Ysidro branch manager Adolfo Ocampo, “you have reliable information — and it’s free. All the people need is a library card.”