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Op-Ed

California must value librarians; libraries can't run themselves

Librarians are more than book finders, shelf arrangers, computer technicians and shush-ers. In a society overwhelmed by data, they are the gatekeepers and organizers of high-quality information.

October 26, 2011|By Regina Powers

California paid for my master's degree in library and information science. While I am grateful to have had the grant and the opportunity to go back to school, I wish now that I had instead trained to be an electrician, a plumber or an auto mechanic. California does not value librarians.

Other states employ an average of one public librarian to 6,250 patrons. As of last year, 3,432 full-time librarians served 37,253,956 Californians. In other words, California librarians were each expected to serve 10,854 patrons. We also employ fewer school librarians than any other state, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Here, there is one school librarian for every 5,965 students; the national average is one librarian to 865 students.

These statistics do not reflect the library positions that have since been eliminated or the layoffs that have taken place because of the California budget crisis. In our schools, hundreds of librarians, along with thousands of teachers, received pink slips last year. The Los Angeles Public Library eliminated 328 full-time positions in 2010. Three years ago, the city of Anaheim employed about 80 full-time library staff members. Plans are underway to slash that number to 21.

Libraries are one of the few good things that governments eagerly take credit for. Sadly, taking credit for libraries is not the same as supporting them. Federal funding decreased from 0.6% in 1999 to 0.4% in 2008. Public library operating revenue from state sources shrank from 12.8% in 2001 to 8.7% in 2008, an all-time low.

Note that the Public Library Fund — a state program that libraries apply to for direct aid for basic services — has never received the full amount designated for it by the state budget. In the 2008-09 fiscal year, the Legislature appropriated a dismal 12% of its allotted funding. This year, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed eliminating state funding for public libraries entirely. Even though the final budget only cut state funding in half, a "trigger" amendment would cut all funding if state revenue projections fall short. Thus, the library buck has been kicked down to local governments.

Unfortunately, librarians fall under the dreaded category of "public employees." Their salaries account for the majority of a library's working budget. Librarians unions are not as powerful as those of police officers and firefighters, making librarians easier to lay off .

Still, the idea of shutting down a library is unpalatable to most officials. So they lay off librarians to keep the buildings open, supporting the illusion that libraries can simply run themselves.

On school visits, I ask what students think a librarian does. The response is always the same. "Librarians check out books. They read a lot. They tell people to be quiet." These misconceptions are held by adults too. When I told a friend that I was embarking on my graduate degree, he asked, "You need a master's degree in the Dewey Decimal System?"

With that attitude, who cares whether California has any librarians left? Why not replace us with phone trees, self-service checkout machines and volunteers?

But librarians are more than book finders, shelf arrangers, computer technicians and shush-ers. In a society overwhelmed by massive amounts of data, they are the ultimate gatekeepers and organizers of high-quality information.

More important, librarians are staunch advocates for the local communities they serve. They find ways to build collections their patrons need and want, including materials in various languages and formats. They offer guidance to parents who want to raise successful students. They guard historically relevant materials. They motivate and inspire readers. They add depth to teachers' curricula. They quench the thirst of lifelong learners. They do this and more, free of charge to the public.

Over the last decade, California librarians have adapted to overwhelming changes in the systems and quantities of information they provide. They did so with demoralized staff, dwindling funding and fickle legislative support.

Can California afford to lose any more librarians? Per capita, national public library visits rose 19.7% from 1999 to 2008, according to the most recent Public Libraries Survey. . Circulation increased 34.5%, and children's program attendance increased 13.9%.

Who will run California libraries if not librarians? Will volunteers be able to keep up with upcoming technological changes; will they know how to make relevant information easily accessible to patrons who desire to be fully informed, literate citizens? Will less-educated staff know how to conduct high-quality programs; will they know how to provide appropriate reading materials and recommendations that will spark the interest of young minds?

As one resident wrote in a letter of protest to the mayor of Anaheim, "Libraries without librarians are like hospitals without doctors." California cannot afford to lose any more librarians without risking the quality of what is left of our libraries as well.

Regina Powers is a librarian in Orange County.

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