The traumatic 2009 closure of Wright Library still resonates amongst library supporters in town. Faced with the reality that the fragile County Library system could no longer afford to subsidize three branches in Ventura, the decision was made to consolidate Wright with the Downtown E.P. Foster Library. The shift has certainly improved Foster — with more staff, a revamped collection and more hours, the Downtown Library is far busier these days. But with nearly 90 per cent of the population east of Downtown, many east end residents, especially children, no longer have convenient access to a library.
Voters turned down Measure A in 2009 which would have kept Wright open as part of a temporary sales tax hike to match the one approved by Oxnard the year before. Then Camarillo joined Moorpark in pulling out of the County system, further weakening the regional approach for sharing books and staff. The Ventura City Council directed that a new “Library Strategic Plan” be forged, not only to decide whether to stay within the County system, but to seek consensus on what kind of service Ventura residents want — and what kind they are willing to pay for.
With a June 2011 deadline for notifying the County of our decision to stay or go, the Council authorized the hiring of a nationally-known library consultant to shepherd the process. With the City operating on 100 fewer staff due to budget cuts, there wasn’t internal capacity to mount a comprehensive effort, including extensive outreach to the public. A citizen steering committee was assembled to oversee the strategic planning effort. Battle lines quickly formed over the issue of “privatization” of libraries.
Both Moorpark and Camarillo had turned to LSSI, the nation’s only privately-owned library system operator, a Maryland-based corporation that claims lower costs for delivering library services. Some disgruntled Wright advocates hoped that a low bid from LSSI might save enough to re-open the closed branch.
Others decried the threat of losing their “public” library to an operator motivated by private profit instead of community service. These included not only union sympathizers, but many loyal library supporters. They argued that the “savings” offered by LSSI came not from efficiencies, but simply lower pay and benefits for librarians which they saw as a threat to the long-term viability of excellent libraries.
MaryEllin Santiago, the library expert hired by the City, warned against focusing solely on “who” offers library services. She urged our community to focus on the equally important questions of “what” library services we want and “how much” library services we are willing to pay for.
Too often, the stormy debates over library services in Ventura have narrowly focused the “what” question on “number of hours libraries are open.” Sure, that’s important, but the amount of time the doors are open ignores
significant questions about what happens inside. Clearly, 21st Century library services are going to be very different from primarily buying, shelving and lending books. Many people still love books, but in the digital age, libraries must adapt to the rapidly morphing ways people learn and access information. A library primarily devoted to housing books is doomed to shrinking relevance.
Feedback from Ventura residents confirmed that view. More than 1500 residents participated in a survey on what they wanted
from their libraries. Comments focused on three goals:
1. Libraries are important to help our children be educated.
2. Libraries are a source for information and learning for all ages.
3. Libraries can be a place to go and enjoy cultural and family activities.
“How much” of such services we are willing to pay for is an even more pointed question. Santiago provided up-to-date figures that shows Ventura taxpayers provide far less support for libraries than most communities in California. Ventura residents would like three libraries, up-to-date books and materials, frequent cultural and family activities and friendly, helpful librarians. But how committed are they to paying for them? Here’s the average annual spending for library services:
- National average $48 per resident
- State of California: $34 per resident
- Ventura County: $24 per resident
- City of Ventura: $17.45 per resident
The June deadline ended up a moot issue. The County has dissolved the defunct “Memorandum of Understanding” that had been such a source of contention with member cities. That also changes the deadline for withdrawing from the system to December 31 of each year.
With that new deadline looming, the key library questions are now coming to a head. Santiago sought responses from the County, LSSI and other nearby independent city libraries on what services they would offer Ventura at our current funding level.
LSSI declined to participate as did nearby independent city libraries. The County provided info on its current services, but made clear additional services would require additional funding.
The citizen steering committee met this week to consider those responses. They meet again on October 12 to finalize their recommendations to the Library Advisory Commission and the City Council. There was sentiment to seek formal agreement with the County to provide a different mix of services, including re-establishing a branch to better serve the eastside. That desire, however, may conflict with the County’s aversion to strike separate agreements with the remaining four cities it serves, particularly without additional funding from Ventura.
Library supporters like to quote writer Anne Herbert’s quip that “Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.” It remains to be seen how libraries will fare in Ventura in these tough economic times. Neither the status quo nor privatization look like panaceas. Perhaps it is well to keep in mind the anonymous quote of a member of the British War Cabinet in the dark days of World War II: “We are out of money. We are going to have to think.”