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Restored Hours Evidence Of Importance Of Local Libraries?

Aired 6/20/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

To balance San Diego's budget this year, it was proposed to cut neighborhood branch library hours in half. City lawmakers introduced plans to restore the hours and saving libraries became a rallying cry. Eventually, the deep cuts were blocked. We discuss whether this is a recognition of the continuing importance, even in our digital age.

Funding for libraries in San Diego is safe for another year, but to keep up, libraries are undergoing an evolution.
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Above: Funding for libraries in San Diego is safe for another year, but to keep up, libraries are undergoing an evolution.

San Diego's libraries have been in the sites of the city's budget cutters for several years. This year, the hours of neighborhood libraries were almost scaled back to only two days a week, but then a curious thing happened. City lawmakers began to introduce plans to restore hours for branch libraries.

Saving libraries became a rallying cry, and eventually, the deepest cuts were blocked.

Is this a recognition of the continuing importance of libraries, even in our digital age?


Roberta Stevens, president of the American Library Association.

Deborah Barrow, director of the San Diego Public Library.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. San Diego's libraries have been in the sights of the city's budget cutters for several years. This year, the hours of the neighborhood libraries were almost scared back to only two days a week. But then a curious thing happened. City lawmakers began to introduce plans to restore hours for branch libraries. Saving libraries began a rallying cry, and eventually, the deepest cuts were blocked. Is this a recognition of the continuing importance of libraries even in our digital age? That's a question I'll ask my guests. 50, San Diego library director, Deborah Barrow. Hi Deborah.

BARROW: Hello.

CAVANAUGH: And Roberta Stevens is on the line with us. She is president of the American library association. Thank you for joining us, Roberta.

STEVENS: Thank you, Maureen. It's a pleasure for me to be here.

CAVANAUGH: First of all, Deborah, let me ask you several questions about what we've just been through in terms of the city budget. Tell us what kind of cuts San Diego libraries actually have taken in recent years.

BARROW: In recent years, we have had a series of cuts, and this is obviously in light of the city's very serious budget deficit. The library has cut hours, we have cut positions, library administration years ago made several deep cuts. In addition to that we've taken a look at how to operate differently. We've actually done what's called a business process reengineering, which is a way of looking at efficiencies to see what we can do to maintain our services at a lower cost, if possible. A lot of things have been done over the last few years to address the budget.

CAVANAUGH: How have people in San Diego responded to these cuts Deborah? What have you heard from people?

BARROW: Generally people wonder why no library, and of course they may not be cognizant of the city's exact budget situation. But the library is very visible to the community. We are the face of the community, we say. Because individuals from all walks of life, all ages, all financial statuses, come to the library. And their reaction is let's not cut our library hours. We need them.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think those are the same voices the City Council heard this year when they seemed to really work to block the deepest cuts to libraries?

BARROW: Absolutely. They were the voices that they heard. But also I think that the mayor and the council members all are very aware that the library services are important to people. They ran a very bad jam. And one more year, this was a potential answer that they realized is not an answer at all. When you have community members so local talking about their use and their needs. And it's clear from our use in the library system that our library is needed by the community.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of figures on use do you have, Deborah?

BARROW: Well, as I've said before, fiscal year ten, which was the year that we finished and we're in fiscal year 11 now, and it is not quite finished, that was our highest circulation ever at 7.7 million items circulated. And we maintain over six million visitors per year. What other institutes can say that they have six million visitors per year?

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. I want to get Roberta Stevens, president of the American library association into our conversation. There seems in some quarters, Roberta, to be a feeling that libraries are outdated in the digital age. I'm thinking that probably you don't agree with that. But I'd like to know why.

STEVENS: Well, libraries in fact are changing in dynamic places. They always have been. But the piece of our change has been accelerating over the past 10 to 20 years. That is because we are in an entirely different information violent. We recognize that. We in the American library association invest a considerable amount of effort in making sure that our members are not only keeping up-to-date with technology, but also keeping ahead of them to better serve the users. Libraries, what they are in this age, is needed more than ever. That's because there was a proliferation of information out there, and it becomes harder and harder for people to navigate what is on the Internet, and to understand what is useful and not useful, to be able to critical analyze the sources of information. When people ask me, why do we need libraries in the age of the Internet? Well, there's an assumption that under lies that question, that everything is in fact available free of charge on line. It's not. And that's where you have some real cost deficiencies by having libraries. We subscribe to all sources of information in databases and if you remember we have staff who are trained in how to do the searching and to show the users how to do the searching to provide what they need.

CAVANAUGH: And as you point out, when you go to the library, the information is free. And it's not always the case on the Internet, if you're just doing it yourself or perhaps you don't even have access to the Internet. Deborah, how have San Diego's libraries evolved to keep up with the age of information?

BARROW: I love that you're asking me that question. Thank you. It gives me an opportunity to brag a little bit. The San Diego public library, I believe it was last year was awarded for our information and technology. We were among the very first libraries that offered wireless access at our various locations. Here we have these 36 facilities that people could go to and take their lap top or whatever device and actually connect because that was part of the service that we felt was very important to offer. We continued to evolve with technology. We are in the forefront. When it comes from the Internet, I can tell you that libraries in California especially were among the first to offer the Internet to the public.


BARROW: I happened to be in Chula Vista at that time. And we barely knew what the Internet was. But we were able to connect through a grant from the California state library. So libraries continue to evolve. Whatever the information medium could be, the library is there to offer it.

CAVANAUGH: How about E-books? Can you rent E-books? Or down load E-books?

BARROW: You bet. We've been doing that for years. And that's probably part of the challenge that we have. We offer these services, and it's been available for several years. We have E-books that people can download. We don't ask anybody to rent them. They're free, and we have audio material or audio down loads available in our library as well.

CAVANAUGH: Can you -- this is a rather broad question, Deborah, but I'm wondering if you can give us a kind of picture as to how people in San Diego use libraries? Do lots of children use the libraries? Do lots of seniors use the libraries?

BARROW: Everybody uses the library. And what a lovely thing it was Saturday. And what a lovely thing it was Saturday. I was at the Mission Hills branch library's 50-year anniversary. There were children there getting the face painting, getting people to read books to them. And there were seniors there. Of in fact there was a family there that I met. They were so proud because they had been at the on opening. The grand opening of the Mission Hills library 50 years ago. And to prove it, they brought with them the original agenda for that event along with a photograph. Now, that's pride in your community library.

CAVANAUGH: Roberta, you talked about that professional expertise that librarians can bring it a search that someone is doing for information. San Diego, because of the cuts that have gone in has lost not only library hours, but some library professionals. And I'm wondering what you think how does that impact libraries when they do lose librarians?

STEVENS: Well, clearly it's very hard to recover when you are losing the people who can most help the user. So it's a challenge. It's a challenge to stretch those resources, and that's why it's so important that the libraries, in fact, do get funded to the level that allows us to hire people and keep them so that we are in fact competitive with the global marketplace now. The other thing is that the libraries are helping in very direct economic ways in communities because there are people who are looking for jobs, and they come into the library, and they get help on job searching and on how to do resumes and ally on line. So what you want at this point in time, when it's most challenging for the users, and the very, very best people possible.

CAVANAUGH: Deborah, I know that there are a number of dedicated and really quite wonderful volunteers who volunteer at the library and augment the declining number of paid personnel. But is it your feeling that we have enough librarians or do we need more?

BARROW: We've been very fortunate in the sense that we've retained our staff. However we do have several openings. And to maintain the suite of hours we have now, we really do need to hire. We've been holding back on vacancies due to pending cuts and concerns that we wouldn't want to lay off staff after having hired someone very recently. But that's come to a head. And we need to bring the staff in that will help us maintain the hours, and one point in particular is the youth service of librarians. This has been a position that's very important to the community members. And they talk about these positions. They want the librarians in the schools, talking with the children, inviting them spot library. And that's one area that we really can make some improvements.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you both, I'm sure that there are some people listening to this who say basically this is all well and good, but frankly I haven't been it a branch library in years. With the Internet and downloading books from Amazon and so forth, what would you say, and I'm gonna start with you Deborah, what would you say to lure one of these people back into a branch library in.

BARROW: Well, it's free. The word free always resonates. But in addition to that, there's community. Our libraries are so much about community building. We are the face of the city. But we're also one of the few places that anyone can come to gather or be among others and have that intellectual stimulation. Also being introduced to new materials. Had someone been in their library or visited on line, they would know, we have had E-books for quite some time.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. Thank you for that.

BARROW: You're welcome.

CAVANAUGH: And Roberta? What would you say to get them back in to visit a branch library?

STEVENS: Well, I think that the opportunity to come to your library and learn many, many new things, it is kind of surprising if they haven't been there because it just means that they have been left a little bit in the dust. There is a tremendous amount that is offered through libraries that you're not going to get anywhere else. And to reinforce what Deborah said, it's free. I would encourage them to come in and to explore, investigate, and learn about what it is that we do today, not to think of libraries as libraries were 30 or 40 years ago. But find out what a library offers to the individuals in the community today of all ages. There are a lot of programs in addition to the information and materials and print format that we after. So come in and find out.

CAVANAUGH: I remember summer vacation when I was a kid, I spent a lot of time at the, well. And I wasn't the only person there. Lots of kids used to spend a lot of time at the library. There were summer reading programs, lots of things to do. Is that the same way it is today Deborah?

BARROW: Oh, you bet. In fact we just started our summer reading program. We are so excited about it, for children 0 through 11. It's one world, many stories. And we have a team program. It's UR here. And guess what? We also have an adult program. For those who are nostalgic about those summer months. We have a program for adults called novel destinations. And to just reiterate that we are in the digital age, we allow now for people to sign up via the Internet and to track what they've read. We have lots of incentives and wonderful sponsors that have helped us with our summer reading program, SDG&E, union banks, crafts, memorial fund, the Padres. They have been wonderful to us year after year. The San Diego zoo. There are so many others I won't take the time now to name. But summer reading is so important for entertainment, but also to prevent the summer slide for our students. We want them to maintain the reading levels because we know that's very important to their success throughout their academic career.

CAVANAUGH: Lastly, Deborah, are you expecting -- do you hope it see the more hours restored for libraries as we go down next year's budget, and the budget after that?

BARROW: I know next year's budget is going to be a challenge too. I won't predict that will happen for next year's budget. Although I would love that. I think in the future, it will be something that will be looked at because the last thing we want to do is to cut off the opportunity for education and improvement for our community members. I think so many people see that and value it. Now, the thing we have to do is figure out how to continue to provide the funding needed for this very important service.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with San Diego library director Deborah barrow and Roberta Stevens, president of the American library association, thank you both very much.

STEVENS: Thank you Maureen.

BARROW: Thank you so much.

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