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We need library professionals now more than ever 

Libraries are easy targets for shortsighted politicians looking to scrimp, who see libraries as an extravagance used only by elitists

click to enlarge FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
This week, the county eliminated 11 library positions, equivalent to seven full-time employees, and announced volunteers will be used as substitutes. At the same time, County Supervisor Frank Mecham has pressed to replace a key technical service and support position with a county-wide “volunteer coordinator.” They are supposedly unrelated matters, but were presented together. Draw your own conclusions.

 

Considering his past position as Paso Robles mayor, this turn of events is not surprising. The city library was built on a model of volunteerism. The city put together a detailed plan for paid staff positions, and volunteers to fill key roles that traditionally went to paid staff members, to persuade the people of Paso Robles to approve a bond measure to build the current library and city hall building. The city has built a very successful model using the volunteer system. However, one of the keys to that success has been the realization that volunteers cannot do all things. There is always a minimum paid staff on hand to support and guide those volunteers.

 

The county library is a traditional system in which people must achieve a certain level of education to qualify for positions. Having said that, I do believe the Paso Robles system could be adopted by the county—to expand service and add hours at a time of need for taxpayers. The Paso Robles library is open 67 hours per week, while the county averages 37 hours in its largest branches. The county has higher traffic even with the shorter hours. How about using volunteers to expand hours and availability to taxpayers? Obviously the demand is there. Instead of cutting service, which staff reductions will lead to, use staff to train and supervise a larger volunteer force.

 

The staff reduction mirrors the slide we see nationally. City after city and county after county have trimmed budgets and cut services; at the same time libraries are seeing surges in use by the public who funds them. Philadelphia, with one of the oldest free libraries in the country, just survived the proposed closure of the entire system, thanks to a last-minute bailout by the state government. Sonoma County is closing all branches for 10 days at the end of the year in an attempt to close a budget gap. The Seattle library system plans to cut hours at 21 branches next year. Pittsburgh plans to close several branches and cut 28 percent of open hours in 2010 to close a budget shortfall. We should all remember what happened in 2005 in Salinas, the birthplace of John Steinbeck. In a budget shortfall the city closed the entire library system. It took a citywide outcry and a bond measure passage to open the libraries again—they’re now open seven days a week serving the public. Such incidents clearly show how much taxpayers value libraries, leading the way for politicians to follow.

 

Sadly, libraries are easy targets for short-sighted politicians looking to scrimp, who see libraries as an extravagance used only by elitists; certainly not so important as deputy sheriffs or firemen. I hold that all are equally important. No, a library worker can’t put out a fire or arrest a teenager for stealing a car. But a sheriff could be saved the effort if a library is available to that teen as a place to find support for his educational or creative goals. Libraries provide the foundation for communities and our democracy.

 

I am an advocate for libraries in our democracy. In a democracy, knowledge is power. The most important thing to our future as a nation is an informed electorate. Libraries have always been the stalwarts of information. It is a fact: When times get tough, library use explodes.

 

Yes, there is waste in the library system; there is waste in every system, even emergency services. I encourage the county to start by eliminating that waste and find needed funds there. Look at all levels of county government. When county officials can honestly say they can’t save another dime anywhere, then and only then should layoffs of paid staff (otherwise known as taxpayers) be considered. Contact our supervisors and urge them not to lay off library staff—tell them to support their fellow citizens who also happen to work for the county.

 

Doug Bates is a lifelong library patron. He serves as a trustee of the Paso Robles Library and his bride has worked in libraries for the past 12 years. Her position with the county is not threatened—for the moment. Send comments to the editor at econnolly@newtimesslo.com.

 

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