San Diego central library
The San Diego central library. Photo courtesy of the city

Libraries are more than words in books. They are, for many neighborhoods, the only community resource available to residents from all walks of life.

This is why the San Diego Public Library Foundation and Youth Will join with the Friends of the San Diego Public Library, Library Commission, and other advocates to urge the city to make no cuts to the library budget. Instead, we call on San Diego’s elected leaders to make new investments that allow our libraries to help San Diego, and San Diegans, recover.

If this last year of struggles has taught us anything, it’s that the need for support services that libraries provide are more critical now than ever. 

We know that the library’s essential role is felt even more acutely in  San Diego communities that have been historically under-invested, and that role was even more necessary as the pandemic worsened digital equity disparities. The Library Foundation has supported intentional library efforts to promote equitable digital access throughout the city.

We provided free computers so students in need can participate in library education programs such as Career Online High School, READ/San Diego adult literacy, and Library STEAM education programs. We funded laptops so patrons can use “Computers in Courtyards” in ten communities, including San Ysidro, Logan Heights, Valencia Park, and City Heights. 

These efforts are important, but we recognize they only help mitigate a digital divide that has grown exponentially over the past 14 months. It is important that we acknowledge that there are too many young people who cannot enjoy and use these digital services without physically being at the library. After a year of distance learning, it is essential that any and all students who need it can access tutoring services, Wi-Fi, computers, and other educational resources. 

Ensuring broad, equitable access is only possible with no significant library budget cuts. And, during a time when San Diegans rely deeply on library resources to help them get back to the classroom and back to work, it would be irresponsible for the city to make a 10 percent cut in the library budget as proposed. The transition back to a vague sense of normalcy has been rocky enough; this isn’t a time to compound it further.

We’re thankful that the Mayor listened to our passionate library supporters, both within the City Council itself and our community advocates, and we are encouraged that the Mayor and council are working toward restoring the library’s budget. In addition, we’re grateful for the additional funds to support library programs, materials, equitable access and overdue investments in staff training.

San Diegans love their libraries. Even more critically, they rely on them.

This spring, more than 7,200 people from every part of San Diego participated in a citywide survey to gauge how the library currently serves the community, and to learn what San Diegans need from the library of the future. The survey is part of the community input phase of efforts to develop a new library master plan by the San Diego Public Library and the Library Foundation.

Words that arose repeatedly in survey responses were “essential” and “community asset.” San Diegans know their libraries serve a much broader role than just a place to store books. Our Libraries are an essential service — “as essential as the grocery store,” as one respondent wrote.

We believe a library that is open and accessible is in the best interest of all San Diegans. Without access to libraries, organizations like Youth Will would not have had a safe place to convene and gather input to form their programs. Libraries serve as a place to grow, learn, and build community for young people. But in order to ensure equitable access to resources and programs, new library investments are needed.

A survey respondent captured the need for new Library investments best. “The library has been the most useful tool for those that are economically disadvantaged,” they wrote. “Since I was a child with illiterate non-English-speaking grandparents and being a first-generation college graduate, I would not have succeeded without the public library resources. Do not cut resources, instead expand them for the benefit of all community members.”

Libraries are so much more than words, more than books. They are integral parts of our beautiful community and act as sanctuaries, offices, study rooms, learning centers, reading nooks and more. Libraries deserve proper funding so that San Diego is truly an equitable and welcoming city for all.

Patrick Stewart is CEO of the San Diego Public Library Foundation. Safia Haidari is co-leader of Youth Will, a nonprofit that focuses on civic engagement and mobilizing youth.