Why Our Public Library Matters

Why Our Public Library Matters 1When I was growing up in San Mateo in the 1960s I was blessed to live within easy walking distance of the city’s public library. On weekends and during summer vacations I probably spent more time there than anywhere else. My middle school and high school years were a period in which I explored my growing passions for literature and history. The public library gave me access to the great works of world literature and books that opened my eyes to how human civilization has evolved and progressed (or regressed, in some cases) over the millennia. The public library gave me a wealth of opportunities to discover what it was that I was truly passionate about and what later became the foundation of my future career.

These memories from my youth contribute to my excitement for the new library plans for Pleasant Hill. The existing Pleasant Hill library has fond memories for me itself, since I’ve been an enthusiastic patron of it for almost twenty years. But the building is more than fifty years old and the city needs a new facility. The planning, design and financing programs are now coming together to give Pleasant Hill a new library that will serve the city’s future generations.

Mayor Michael Harris gave a presentation to the Friends of the Pleasant Hill Library at the organization’s annual meeting on Saturday, May 13. Some of the key features anticipated for the new library will make for a beautiful facility. It would be located on a three-acre parcel of land adjacent to the existing library and accommodate 1,600 visitors a day with 140 parking spaces. There would be an open floor plan with expanded space for children and families, a teen area, a Friends of the Pleasant Hill Library bookstore, and wi-fi technology with plenty of power outlets to make the library an attractive work space for professionals. The city would use the latest green technology for energy efficiency. There would be comfortable seating and meeting space to permit a variety of uses.

There are lots of reasons for Pleasant Hill residents to pay close attention to the new library project as it progresses. Measure K, which the voters passed last year, will provide around $20-$25 million of tax revenue to support construction of a new library, which is anticipated to take about 4-5 years. But some neighboring cities have spent substantially more than this on their libraries, so design trade-offs will be unavoidable. The City Council will need to evaluate these trade-offs as it considers architect proposals between now and early August, when an architectural contract award is expected to be made. Pleasant Hill’s K-12 students will also have an opportunity to compete in design contests to ensure that student needs and design ideas are considered. Pleasant Hill residents will want to ensure that the city gets the most value it can for the available funding, as the investment is an important one.

The way knowledge is disseminated today it is fair to question whether the kind of public library that I grew up with has continuing relevance. With an internet connection I can go to Wikipedia and find out just about anything sitting at home in front of a laptop. I can go to YouTube and find an instructional video that will teach me how to do drywall repairs, cook Indian curries, take up oil painting, you name it. I can download just about any book in print on my iPhone. I can go to Coursera and take a free course in corporate finance, computer programming, or ancient history.

But as useful as these digital resources are, both local and national statistics show that people need public libraries. The Pleasant Hill library, the most popular library in the Contra Costa County system, sees over 1,200 visitors per day. According to a study conducted by the Institute of Museum and Library Services based on 2014 data, library use is fairly consistent among public libraries throughout the western states. (You can view the IMLS study at https://www.imls.gov/news-events/news-releases/imls-releases-fy-2014-public-libraries-survey-data.) Despite the wonders of the internet, people still depend on public libraries for knowledge about what is happening in their world.

According to a September 2016 study by the Pew Research Center, public library use has remained steady for years. There was a sharp uptick in public library use in the wake of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, but even as unemployment eased the demand for public libraries remained. (The Pew Research Center report can be downloaded at http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/09/09/libraries-2016.)

What is even more interesting about the recent data on public library use is that the main reason most people use their libraries is the most old-fashioned one of all: people go there to check out books. In our hyper-connected digital age of everything everywhere being available anytime with a few mouse clicks on a computer, about two-thirds of public library visitors go there to check out books from the shelves. Other public library services, such as e-books, wi-fi and computer resources are growing in popularity, but the main benefit that public libraries offer is that they allow people to take books home and read them.

I like Wikipedia and use it a lot, because it’s great to be able to go the site and find out something quickly about a topic I become interested in. But the quality of Wikipedia articles can vary, and if I really want to learn something I usually want to read a book by someone who knows the subject. My knowledge about a lot of things would be shallower if the public library wasn’t there to allow me to pursue my interests over the years.

Public libraries serve to make important knowledge available without barriers. I don’t need to pass a qualifying examination or complete a battery of prerequisite courses in order to check out a book from the library on a topic. All I need is to have enough interest to read the book and be considerate enough of others to return it. The same principle applies whether I am interested in the Italian Renaissance or the mysteries of double entry accounting (which, by the way, was invented by the Italians during the Renaissance.)

Because we live in a world where so much knowledge flies around the internet at lightning speed it is critical for people to have a community resource where they can advance their knowledge without the financial and other burdens that come with taking formal courses. Finding a good job has become increasingly challenging as employers discover new ways to use technology. The jobs that are out there go to those with the highest levels of knowledge and who continually seek to improve it. Public libraries serve an important role in making knowledge available to people that helps them stay competitive.

Our public library offers an array of important services to the community. Reading programs for children probably top the list: each year some 25,000 children and their families come to the Pleasant Hill Library for a variety of events that are designed to stimulate excitement for reading as well as entertain and provide venues for children to learn together. The library serves as an important venue for Project Second Chance, which gives adults struggling with reading and writing skills an opportunity to improve them. The Pleasant Hill Library offers a book club and a host of cultural events throughout year. More than any other local institution, the library serves as a community gathering place.

For all these reasons public libraries are as relevant as ever, and Pleasant Hill really does need a new facility to serve future generations. The voters recognized this when they approved Measure K last year, and now the planning is starting to come together. But the available funding will only go so far, so it’s important for Pleasant Hill residents to stay engaged and make sure that ideas are heard. This project really matters.