Libraries on the Brink

One of Oakland's proposed budget scenarios would devastate its public library system.

What may seem inconceivable could soon become reality: If the City of Oakland can’t close its $58 million budget gap by other means this summer, it will be forced to all but dismantle its public library system. Even in a best-case fiscal scenario — where homeowners agree to foot a new parcel tax and all city employees make substantial concessions — Oakland will have to cut eighty full-time positions. But the worse-case scenario, where neither of the above applies, would decimate city services, including the closure of fourteen of Oakland’s eighteen public libraries. It’s a move that could have devastating impacts on Oakland residents, especially young children and teens.

The library’s current allotment from the city’s general fund is $9.15 million. Measure Q funds of $14 million make up most of the rest of its budget, but can only be accessed if contributions from the general fund top $9.06 million. So if the city drops its contributions to a paltry $3.6 million, as proposed under the worst-case scenario, it forfeits at least three times as much in Measure Q funding. In all, the library’s budget would be slashed by 85 percent.

But numbers don’t tell the whole story. If the cuts go through, not only will the city close fourteen branches indefinitely — all but Rockridge, Dimond, the brand new 81st Avenue branch, and the Main Library downtown — and eliminate numerous jobs, but indispensable services for children, teens, and adults will be gutted. The city’s neediest residents will no longer have free access to information in all its forms. Even following a temporary closure, hurdles to reopening would be significant, and innumerable young library-goers could be estranged in the process.

The library also could lose its book-buying budget, while technology services, including Internet access, would be curtailed at open branches. “It would be very limited, very minimal service,” said Oakland Public Library Director Carmen Martinez. “What happens to the public when you do something like that is they stop coming. … To pull that away from them is not fair, and it’s an ugly picture.”

If all fourteen branches were to close, Martinez anticipates that demand at the remaining four would quickly become unmanageable, especially considering that they’d be staffed at bare-bones levels below even today’s reduced five-days-a-week service. The four branches would have to serve Oakland’s 391,000 residents, a rate of 97,750 people per branch that compares dismally to Berkeley’s 22,600 and San Francisco’s 31,115. “We would be completely over capacity with people standing in line, waiting their turn,” she said. “It’s very dark, very depressing.”

One thing Martinez knows for sure is that many of the library’s most popular services would no longer exist as we know them today. Children’s Services, for which systemwide attendance last year exceeded 85,000, would be among the programs gutted. With a budget of $2.6 million and 24.6 full-time-equivalent employees, the division serves children throughout the city up to the age of fourteen, with a focus on elementary school students and kids under five.

Most children’s librarians would lose their jobs. Currenlty stationed in every branch, they organize countless activities, including weekly story times for preschoolers; after-school art programs; extensive community outreach efforts; and a summer reading program promoted through Oakland public schools, local organizations, and summer camps. Closing branches also will block kids’ access to the libraries’ collections of children’s materials, and leave toddlers and parents with fewer places to play.

The branch libraries that would close under the worst-case scenario are the African American Museum and Library, Asian, Brookfield, Chavez, Eastmont, Elmhurst, Golden Gate, Lakeview, Martin Luther King, Melrose, Montclair, Piedmont Avenue, Temescal, and West Oakland.

“It really is doomsday for the kids,” said Children’s Services supervising librarian Nina Lindsay, who represented fellow staff in making an impassioned case for Oakland’s libraries at a city council budget workshop earlier this month. “If kids don’t learn to read they don’t graduate from high school. If they don’t graduate from high school, we have more unemployment, more poverty, more crime. If the libraries close, that’s what we’ve bought.”

The library system’s Teen Services program, targeting youth between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, would be decimated, too. It has a staff of 9.2 FTE and an annual budget of $1.1 million, and last year ran 315 events, including the Teen Summer Passport Program, an experiential education program that reaches more than 650 teens annually; and a teen job experience and volunteering program that serves 72 teens a month. Dozens of other after-school and weekend programs reach thousands more. All branches have teen collections, and seven branches host dedicated areas for teens. The main library’s TeenZone alone sees 4,000 visitors a month.

An end to all this — or even the bulk of it — would leave thousands of Oakland teens without anywhere to go after school. But Teen Outreach librarian Amy Sonnie cautions against assuming that this would lead directly to loitering, drugs, or crime. The idea that kids stay out of trouble only when they’re kept busy doesn’t give them enough credit, she said. However, in the long run, as problems compound, the correlation could well bear itself out.

“Libraries are integral to a healthy city, and a comprehensive public safety strategy,” Sonnie said. “I personally believe that safety begins with education, and libraries are a vital part of that. Funding libraries today ensures our success tomorrow. An entire generation of young people would be losing out on that. It’s practically unfathomable the impact this would have on the city.”

Located in the heart of Chinatown, the popular Asian Branch Library is open after school for kids Tuesday through Friday. It’s even busy on Saturdays. On a recent Wednesday afternoon in a small upstairs rec room, about 25 young teens played cards, video games, and board games; made buttons and jewelry; or just sat and chatted.

Fourteen-year-old Mei Dam is among those who visit daily. She lives in East Oakland but attends school nearby and, like many of her friends, studies or plays at the library for the two hours between regular school in the day and Chinese school in the evening. She’s heard the news that her community may lose this valuable resource. “I would have nowhere to go,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to meet up with my friends, at least not in any place as safe.”

Downstairs, where the library’s collections are housed, a dozen more kids come and go in the corner of the library reserved for the teen collection. Teen librarian Vicky Chen works hard to stay up on what her branch’s largely Asian-American kids are interested in, and the teen stacks reflect her success: Chinese and English-language manga comics, Chinese novels, Korean pop CDs, graphic design magazines, Wii video games, and popular DVDs.

Joining youth services on the chopping block is the library’s Second Start Adult Literacy Program. Operating on a one-on-one basis, it serves far fewer people — perhaps 300 students and another 300 volunteers every year — but can have a particularly profound effect on adult lives. Geared toward English speakers who are unable to read, it requires at least a six-month commitment and entails twice-weekly meetings. Basic literacy achieved through the program can open doors to graduates, said project coordinator Amy Pretadel, by allowing them to take on new responsibilities at work, become more involved in their community, or simply read to their children for the first time.

Second Start was established in 1984 as one of the first adult literacy programs in the state, and thanks to considerable demand — according to a 2003 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, at least one-fifth and as many as one-third of Oakland residents lack basic literacy skills — it continues to grow each year. “It’s a very marginalized population that we serve,” Pretadel said. “These programs fit a niche that is not being served by any other education venue in town.”

At one point the Oakland Unified School District also offered a bevy of adult education classes, but its budget has already been slashed dramatically in the past few years, spelling an end to many of its ESL, GED, and vocational programs. For Oakland adults with low-level literacy, the Second Start program is their only option. And Pretadel is shocked that it might be going away — especially when it takes only $300,000 a year from the city to sustain it. “I can’t tell you how horrified I am that all of this is on the table,” she said.

The library would see such severe cuts only under Mayor Jean Quan‘s worst-case budget scenario, which to date remains a very real possibility. Her two alternate budget scenarios, however, wouldn’t be nearly as disastrous. Scenario B, which hinges upon critical city employee givebacks, would result in no major changes to library operations, but would leave the system increasingly dependent on variable Measure Q funds. Scenario C, the best-case budget based on the passage of Quan’s proposed $80 annual parcel tax, would provide the library system with a revenue cushion of nearly $600,000 over the next two years.

Director Martinez is hoping for the best — partly because it’s too painful to imagine the worst. “I’m trying to be positive,” she said. “I’ve been in libraries for 35 years, and I’ve never had to close a branch. I’ve never faced as dark a time economically in any municipality of government I’ve ever worked for.”

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