In the entrance to the Main Library branch on Pacific Avenue, there is a statue of a headless man on fire–an allusion to Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Fahrenheit 451. The statue serves as a constant reminder of the importance of reading, education, and books, and the need for a society to protect them.
In times of economic tension and budget crisis, libraries and liberal arts are usually the first to be cut. But with the adoption of the Fiscal Year 2013 budget, the Long Beach Public Library system is not only losing some money for new books and staff, but will also be undergoing one significant service change.
Effective Tuesday, October 22, the main library’s hours of operation now begin at 12PM Tuesday through Thursday, instead of 10AM. This change in opening time keeps the Main Library on the same schedule with the neighborhood libraries.
“For the Main Library,” says Glenda Williams, LBPL’s Director of Library Services, “if you’re used to coming in at 10 o’clock, then you would have to adjust your schedule…There’s fewer hours of access to the physical collections we have, but we also have our library website, which is open 24/7.”
While Williams understands the reduction of staff will affect the number of people who can assist patrons coming into the library, she downplays the impact of the library changes, because she sees that it could have been much worse. Initially, they were going to be forced to lay off 16 people, but that number has been reduced to six.
And a slight alteration of Main Library hours is nothing compared to the cuts that Long Beach’s libraries have undergone in the last few years. In 2010, all 12 branches were moved to a five-day-a-week schedule (they are now closed on Sundays and Mondays) and earlier this year, six branches—mostly in affluent neighborhoods—were converted to an alternate-staffing model which utilizes part-time support staff and limited librarian assistance.
Library branch photos courtesy of Long Beach Public Library’s Facebook page.
In a proposed budget—which was to slash 9.4 percent of the library’s funding—more branch locations were supposed to become these self-service libraries with fewer staff. Patrons wouldn’t be able to pay fees or complete any transactions with a cash register, such as checking out CDs or DVDs. Then that changed.
“The City Council approved $400,000 to make those six locations not be like that,” Williams says of the one-time funds eventually allocated to reinstate many library and parks services. “You will be able to go and pay your fines, check out media. You have less librarian assistance, but in place of that, to keep the programs going, we’re bringing in admin interns.”
But how do these gradual cuts and changes affect the Long Beach community? Is the role of the public library in jeopardy?
Williams stays positive by viewing the changes as a shifting of models. She is confident that the basic focus of what the library is trying to accomplish hasn’t changed.
“The main thing is literacy,” she says. “Services to youth are very important…If they’re not successful readers, usually by third of fourth grade, there’s a good chance that they could not be productive in society. I want to say 85 percent of youth in juvenile hall are illiterate.”
Sara Myers, Executive Director of the Long Beach Public Library Foundation, isn’t sure how some of these changes are going to pan out.
“It’s always hard to know exactly what the effects will be with a brand new model,” Myers explains, “But the community will probably see longer wait times, busier branches and the offerings of the programs might change.”
Myers also sees the budget cuts as part of a larger issue affecting young people in the city. “Libraries are a wonderful, vital resource,” she says. “Right now when you the look at the school districts, the school district libraries are only open two days a week…Most elementary school libraries are only open two days a week…Also, many of the elementary schools don’t have computer labs.”
Family Learning Center is one of LBPL’s programs Myers sees being affected. The Family Learning Center is a station for families to receive help with homework, resume and job applications. Also, families have access to computers. Unlike the other computers in the library that have an allotted-use time of one hour, families can have unlimited access to the computers, depending on wait need, at the Family Learning Centers located in the libraries.
Myers believes whole-heartedly in the success of Family Learning Centers. According to research and an evaluation conducted by UCLA on after-school programs in 2002: “The Family Learning Centers could serve as a model for libraries nationwide wishing to implement successful after-school homework programs…All of these factors contribute to making the Family Learning Centers one of the most exemplary homework programs in the country.”
She also notes the fiscal change in the last year to the program. “Originally the city provided probably about $150,000 for [Family Learning Centers],” Myers said. “This year they only provided $33,000.”
Myers points to programs like The Family Learning Centers and others the library operates as important tools in fighting illiteracy—an issue she believes deserves greater attention in the city. According to Myers, only 44 percent of all Long Beach third graders and 36 percent of low income third graders are reading at or above their grade level.
“Children need to have more books in their home…Usually a child just needs to be read to, and unfortunately,” Myers says, “that’s not happening as much as it should be. Obviously, libraries are a perfect intervention.”
One of the biggest problems the library now faces, says Myers, is that people don’t really understand all there is to offer. For example, anyone with a library card has access to a language-learning program, similar to Rosetta Stone. Also, patrons can download eBooks, magazines and manuals straight to their Kindle, iPad or Nook. LBPL also possesses large Spanish and Khmer-language book collections, the latter of which is currently being added to by two librarians on a book-buying trip to Cambodia.
“[The Library] is working hard to provide all of the services despite these cuts,” Myers says. “But a lot of people might not realize their value. So when it comes time to voting for libraries, they don’t realize all the things keeping it so relevant.”
With advancing technologies like e-readers and the changing book industry, libraries are undergoing significant changes, and it leads people like Myers to start to wonder about the evolution of the library. She sees marketing and public awareness as a large part of the issue. People in the community need to understand all that a library has to offer and what they’re trying to accomplish.
“Whenever you’re in a budget crisis,” Myers says, “it becomes hard to dream big…What type of Long Beach public library system do we want and deserve?”
To find out more about the Long Beach Public Library’s services, programs and branches, visit them online at lbpl.org.
[Eds. note: a previous version of this story stated that nearly 75 percent of library funding was slated to be cut. The correct percentage that was to be cut is 9.4 percent. It also inaccurately stated that the six libraries which moved to an alternate staffing model had no staff when they are instead operating with a reduced staff. We regret the errors.]
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