Visiting the library in the small town of Planada means visiting a bookmobile with no air conditioning in the sweltering heat of the San Joaquin Valley. But Sofia Rodriguez visits often, pulling her young children in their red wagon. The youngsters are bookworms who eagerly anticipate exchanging their library books for a stack of new ones.
It wasn't long ago that the town of 4,100 had its own community library. But in 2014, weekly bookmobile stops replaced brick-and-mortar libraries in Planada and three other communities in Merced County. Citing budget woes, the County Board of Supervisors voted to shutter four library branches, leaving just 12 locations -- half the number it once had.
The shrinking footprint of the Merced County Library is a consequence of having one of the most poorly funded library systems in the state. Its libraries had $12 in income for each resident in 2020-21, according to the California State Library.
Santa Clara among best funded
By contrast, the neighboring Santa Clara County Library, which serves much of Silicon Valley, boasts $147 in funding for every resident, among the highest in the state.
Vast disparities in California's libraries mirror the state's yawning equity gaps: The state's most underfunded libraries are found in counties with high poverty and those with the lowest %age of people over age 25 with a bachelor's degree, according to census data. Libraries tend to be better funded in wealthier coastal and urban areas, and underfunded in the San Joaquin Valley, Northern California and other inland areas.
A library system's annual income per resident is a key number that influences nearly every aspect of a library such as staffing levels, the quality of materials available to check out, whether professional librarians staff branches, the prevalence of fines and fees, how many hours the library is open or, as is the case in Planada, whether a community has a library at all.
The question of how to fund libraries is made by elected public officials. Scant funding comes from the state or federal government annually – about 66 cents and 25 cents for every Californian, respectively. California's library systems are hyperlocal agencies that receive 94% of their funding from local government.
John Chrastka, the founder of EveryLibrary, calls this the "ZIP code lottery." EveryLibrary, a national political action committee focused on building voter support for libraries, has supported ballot initiatives aimed at raising funds for libraries in California and across the country.
“If you have a poor ZIP code, you have poor services; if you have a rich ZIP code, you have better off services,” he said.
Counties that fund libraries are also more likely to have an active Friends of the Library chapter that can raise funds and encourage volunteering, Chrastka said.
“There are times where the funding is limited because of economics, and there [are] times where it's limited because of philosophy of government,” Chrastka said.
Gilroy library shines
The cities of Gilroy and Los Banos have a lot in common. They are close in size -- Gilroy has 58,000 residents and Los Banos has 46,000 -- and both are cities in agricultural regions with an increasing number of Bay Area expats seeking more affordable housing. Less than 50 miles separate the two communities, but the libraries seem to operate in different universes.
The Los Banos Branch Library is an older building just under 4,000 square feet with just one room for its patrons. It is open five days a week; no library in Merced County is open every day and most are open just two or three days a week.
By contrast, Gilroy has a gleaming, two-story library that spans 53,000 square feet -- even larger than Merced's main library. It features a meeting room that can hold 100 people and a classroom dedicated to adults learning to read. It's open every day, like nearly every location in Santa Clara County, home to Silicon Valley.
The Santa Clara County Library recently hosted the Try-It Truck, a mobile engineering lab for kids. The library has also begun to invite park rangers into libraries to educate the community about local flora and fauna. Children who want to explore a local park can check out a backpack complete with binoculars, a magnifying glass, a first aid kit and books that help identify local wildlife.
Even though the Santa Clara County Library is in one of the wealthiest counties in the state, it makes efforts to address equity issues in its communities, said library spokeswoman Diane Roche.
“We're fortunate,” Roche said. “We want to be able to provide the best services, the best resources, as much availability and accessibility as we can.”
Recently, the library system created a new position for a community outreach specialist -- a reflection of the library's priority to provide the public information about housing, food, health care and other resources. Erik Poicon will visit library sites in the neediest parts of Santa Clara County: Milpitas Library and the Ochoa Migrant Center in Gilroy, which is a bookmobile stop.
“This position builds on this existing relationship with the public and allows libraries to go further in connecting people in need with the government and nonprofit services that they require,” said Mike Wasserman, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and president of the library's Joint Powers Authority Board, in a statement announcing the hire.
Vast disparities in California's libraries mirror the state's yawning equity gaps: The state's most underfunded libraries are found in counties with high poverty and those with the lowest percentage of people over age 25 with a bachelor's degree, according to census data. Libraries tend to be better funded in wealthier coastal and urban areas, and underfunded in the San Joaquin Valley, Northern California and other inland areas.
Voter support is key
All these facilities and services are possible thanks to Santa Clara County Library's long history of success at the ballot box.
In 1994, voters approved a parcel tax that also created the joint powers authority that governs the library system. Voters also regularly approve additional funds to improve library facilities. Residents of Gilroy easily passed a bond measure authorizing the city to borrow $37 million for a new library in November 2008 -- during the Great Recession when many library systems were making cuts.
Dion Bracco, a longtime Gilroy City Council member, said he didn't fully understand the importance of libraries until he joined the board of the Santa Clara County Library to represent Gilroy. Now the self-proclaimed conservative said he can't find fault in the way this government agency is run -- and neither do his constituents.
“It's very fiscally well-run,” he said. “All the libraries are top-notch libraries. We get awards constantly.”
In contrast, Merced County's library system has been financially troubled for decades. In 1993, Merced County briefly shut down its library system. This came on the heels of voters narrowly defeating a half-cent sales tax measure that would have helped the county avoid a financial crisis.
Patrons and Friends of the Merced County Library helped to resuscitate the library system, but it has continued to struggle. The shutdown of four branches in 2014 resonates in the tight-knit town of Planada that is almost entirely Latino, where just 5% of adults have a bachelor's degree and where many who work in agriculture live in migrant camps.
Merced improvements coming
There are improvements in the works for Merced County.
A long-awaited new bookmobile with a functioning air conditioner and Wi-Fi is scheduled to come online soon. Library advocates lobbied the county to open during the evenings as a pilot. Part of the main branch of the second floor is under construction so that it can be transformed into a teen center.
The Merced County Library could use the funding that comes with voter support, said Donald Barclay, current Friends of the Merced County Library president. Unfortunately, neither the peak of the pandemic, nor the current period of inflation and high gas prices have seemed the right time to seek a tax increase, he said.
In the meantime, the library and its advocates are working to remind residents of libraries' importance -- an uphill battle when the system is a shadow of its former self, Barclay said.
“It's been almost 50 years of people in Merced County not knowing what it's like to have a really well-funded library,” Barclay said.
The role of libraries
Surveys show that Americans are making good use of their libraries. But a misconception lingers that public libraries' importance has diminished as technology overtakes the flow of information. Library advocates argue the rising importance of digital access and literacy has made libraries vital in a new way. To start, public libraries are a rare free place for those who lack reliable access to the internet.
Public libraries complement the formal education system, but libraries serve a unique role that schools don't replicate. It's one of the few remaining public institutions where people from all walks of life are welcome, whether to read, relax in air conditioning or gather with a club without paying a dime, said Barclay.
Local ballot initiatives have been a lifeline for libraries on the ropes in California.
Citing budget constraints, Lassen County stopped funding its libraries in 1992. Two years later, voters in Susanville approved a special library district that reopened the library, though the outlying areas of Lassen County are, to this day, not served by a library. The Fresno County Public Library is the best-funded library in the San Joaquin Valley thanks to a one-eighth cent sales tax first passed in 1998.
Prop 13 impact
By requiring a two-thirds majority on special taxes, Proposition 13 made it harder for communities to raise funds for their libraries. In 2016, a measure to raise a one-eighth cent sales tax for libraries in Kern County failed with 51.7% of the vote.
During that election, Kern County faced another major hurdle for library funding: political opposition to taxation. Local Republican leaders, who supported a failed attempt to privatize the library system, opposed the measure. Kern County's 900,000 residents now have the worst-funded county library system in the state with just $7 per resident in annual income in 2020-21. EveryLibrary worked in support of the measure, and its failure still stings for Chrastka.
He said local political leadership at the time was "unwilling to fund a community institution that has a provable multiplier effect on quality of life, educational outcomes and literacy services, because of a philosophy of government that says tax is theft."
Formal training in library science makes it possible to address patrons' complicated questions and to design high-quality programming at the branch level, said the director of the Kern County Library, Andie Sullivan.
This is one reason Merced County Library struggles to provide programming at all its branches, said deputy librarian Amy Boese. Merced's nonprofessional staff who do receive their library science degree often go elsewhere.
State funding alone isn't a silver bullet. Hawaii's libraries, for example, are almost entirely state-supported but that amounts to $26 in income per resident, according to the 2020 survey Institute of Museum and Library Services.
For financial stability, libraries should ideally have funding from several sources, say advocates. In states where there's an over reliance on one source of funding -- whether local or state -- there are fewer robust services, said Chrastka.
Emma Gallegos is a reporter with EdSource, which partners with Bay City News.