California is on the fast track to resuming normal life, COVID-19 is in decline, kids are back in school, and the economy is resurgent. But as the fog of the pandemic clears, the magnitude of what we’ve lost is coming into focus. In Santa Monica, perhaps the biggest civic loss is the decimation of the public library system due to budget cuts. Author Anne Herbert once said, “Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.” As its economy rebounds but its libraries remain shuttered, Santa Monica is discovering just how true this is.
Since its founding in 1890 Santa Monica Public Library has survived wars, recessions, fires, and earthquakes, supporting Santa Monicans when they needed help. Now, for the first time in the city’s history, the library isn’t able to provide the support desperately needed by a community recovering from the largest social disruption in generations. Last year, at the outset of the pandemic, the city slashed the library’s budget by a staggering 40%.
This led to a 50% reduction in staff, the shuttering of half the system’s branch libraries, and a radical reduction in hours and services. The skeleton crew left behind is barely large enough to keep the Main Library open 4 days a week, 6 hours a day. None of the branch libraries are re-opening to the public. 80% of the youth services staff are gone, as well as the majority of front-line reference and public services librarians. As a result, the library is unable to deliver all but the most basic services.
For a while, pandemic era restrictions helped mask this loss, but with libraries reopening to the public what’s missing becomes more obvious every day. To give you an idea what the community is losing here’s an extremely incomplete list of library services that have been disrupted:
Live, hands on computer and technology classes, on topics ranging from basic internet and software skills to coding and 3-D printing.
One-on-one tutoring for adults learning to read and write.
Outreach and services for people experiencing homelessness, including access to food, shelter, and transportation, and help obtaining government IDs, employment, and permanent housing.
Assistance to job seekers including live classes, mock interviews and resume review.
Live programming for children including: storytimes, after school tutoring, STEM activities, and arts and crafts.
Live programming for adults like author talks, movie screenings, concerts and lectures.
Innovative community events like pop-up libraries on local beaches, the How to Festival, and Living Libraries.
The longer these services are disrupted the harder it will be to restore them.
In addition to providing vital services, the library also functions as a cultural hub and community connector. It provides communal space, a safe, nurturing environment, and programs that bring people of all ages and walks of life together. These social connections are essential to community wellbeing, even more so as we emerge from a year of isolation. If the branch libraries remain closed, and hours at Main stay drastically reduced, the library’s ability to perform this function will be severely curtailed.
Though much damage has already been done, I have hope that the library’s darkest days are already behind us. If City Council acts now they can restore the funds needed to rehire staff, and restart the services Santa Monica deserves. The alternative, keeping current funding levels for the next two years will cause irreparable harm to the community.
Jeff Kaplan is a former SMPL Reference Librarian. firstname.lastname@example.org or @SaveSMLibrary1