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Crosscurrents logo 2021

A tale of two libraries, and two budgets

The San Francisco Public Main Public Library

Nobody mistakes California for some mythical Library Land of fully staffed facilities with budgets that reach up to the clouds. In fact, Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year would eliminate all state funding to California library programs. Still, some library systems are somehow, someway continuing to upgrade – like San Francisco. 22 branches have been refurbished or opened in San Francisco through a Neighborhood Library Campaign that began over a decade ago on a budget that has grown to $188.9 million as of February of last year.

Let’s state the obvious. San Francisco gets more revenue than Oakland. But, the difference in funding for libraries may also be a matter of priorities. According to SFPL Executive Director Donna Bero, all you have to do to keep funding going to libraries is “talk to your elected officials.” It also helps that, according to a 2011 California Literacy Progress Report, San Francisco had more literate residents than any other city in California. Lo and behold, make the people literate, get the city council members to like you, and the people will vote.

Amy Martin, children's librarian at the Oakland Main branch, helped lead the Save Oakland Libraries campaign, and she watched as her own City Council members changed priorities in the face of strong public reaction. They gradually became less willing to eliminate libraries as it became clear to them this move might eliminate their own jobs.

San Francisco libraries have guaranteed funding that won’t expire anytime soon. In 2007, San Francisco voters passed Proposition D, which renewed the Library Preservation Fund. This meant a percentage of the city’s general fund collected from property taxes by the City would continue to go to libraries for the next 15 years. San Franciscans actually voted for it two years before it was even due to expire. “If we put it up for vote now, in this economy,” said Bero, “people may not have voted for it.”

In addition to getting support from voters, SFPL shakes some wealthy helping hands. This past December, Friends of SFPL announced they received over 2 million in donations. The Henry Mayo Newhall Foundation awarded Friends $100,000. An anonymous individual donated $1 million for “ongoing support” of Friends. A $750,000 gift came from the Mimi and Peter Haas Fund – and that money is just for library furniture and equipment.

This is not to say San Francisco’s libraries haven’t had their share of threats. In 2009, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newson handed out 17,000 pink slips to city employees, including librarians. While cuts to San Francisco libraries were anticipated in 2011, the biggest headline-making cut was an elimination of overdue notices sent by mail to save printing and paper expenses. Bad news for the post office, and for those who don’t have computers, but far less severe than other cuts across the nation.

Over in Oakland, librarians also attempted to pass a bond measure in 2006 for their libraries. It was defeated. Actually, Oakland 's last library-dedicated bond measure passed in 1945. Martin says it’s been hard for Oakland residents to see their libraries, like the police and fire departments, as matters of life and death.

That means Oakland librarians are more worried about protecting their existing libraries than building new ones. Now that the Save Oakland Library campaign is over, budget setbacks are not always in the public eye. Martin says Oakland librarians overwork to make sure their patrons don’t feel the effects of an understaffed library. The next campaign will have to wait for the next budget crisis. Martin says, “We need to reserve our energy.”

Both Oakland and San Francisco governments will continue to make cuts, but the question is where. Martin says, “It’s gotten to the point where things are just not going to function if they cut them. The money’s got to come from somewhere, right?”