Opinion

Historic budget: CA leads in library modernization. Will Feds follow?

A sign beckons library users with a compelling message. (Photo: Becky Ruppel, via California State Library)

This year’s state budget contains an unprecedented investment in California’s public libraries. The $439 million earmarked by Gov. Newsom and the Legislature for renovating and modernizing local libraries will provide decades of ongoing benefits to millions of Californians and the communities in which they live. 

This is by far the largest investment in California’s 1,130 libraries in state history. While it represents 10 percent of needed renovation and construction in public libraries statewide, it’s a significant down payment. And California could do even more if Congress follows through with federal investments as part of a proposed infrastructure package.

Multiple studies show that every $1 invested in libraries yields an average return of $3 to $6 in direct benefits to society.

These funds couldn’t have come at a better time for the state’s libraries and the people who rely on them. Half of California’s libraries are 40 years of age or older. 

Many local libraries aren’t as energy efficient as they could be or as accessible as they should be under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many don’t have the wiring or infrastructure required to deliver the basic levels of high-speed internet connectivity Californians need. Some libraries still in use were built more than 100 years ago. Others require seismic strengthening or other major structural improvements to continue operations. 

A youngster and his books. (Photo courtesy Santa Clara County Library)

The $439 million in the budget is targeted at life and safety issues in libraries in the state’s lower income communities. Coupled with matching funds from cities and counties, this investment will help address the most pressing of the state’s  estimated $5 billion library facilities needs and, in doing so, generate ripples of other benefits.

Multiple studies show that every $1 invested in libraries yields an average return of $3 to $6 in direct benefits to society. In addition, other initiatives in the budget—particularly those relating to homelessness, early learning, after-school activities and mental health—will succeed better with a stronger network of local libraries that meet the needs of 21st century California communities.

The budget also contains $6 million for library broadband connectivity and $35 million to connect schools, libraries, and telehealth providers in hard-to-reach areas of the state. This parallel investment means Californians get a bigger bang for their buck and moves the state closer to strong, reliable connectivity for all.

By using one-time revenue rather than debt financing, the governor and lawmakers also save taxpayers the expense of long-term borrowing, which would have ballooned the $439 million in library improvements to at least $1 billion over the life of a 30-year bond.  

Even more of this necessary and long-delayed rebuilding and modernizing can take place if California’s Congressional delegation and the Biden Administration include funding for libraries in the package of public works spending being stitched together in the nation’s capital.

A public library’s summer reading class. (Photo: Becky Ruppel)

The federal Build America’s Libraries Act would bring another $501 million to repair library buildings in California’s underserved communities. Combined with state and local investments, these federal funds would move California even closer to addressing its library facility shortcomings, particularly broadband connectivity.  

Gov. Newsom calls libraries the “heart of their communities.” That’s because libraries are more than buildings filled with books. 

Libraries are community hubs with digital labs, Makerspaces, homework help, career centers and business resources that offer 435,000 different programs to the public, more than half of them aimed at children.  Communities with strong social infrastructure, like libraries, are more cohesive, vibrant and better capable of withstanding stresses or calamity. 

Strengthening and modernizing California’s network of libraries is an investment that will continue to pay rich dividends. By creating public buildings that help 21st century Californians jumpstart their dreams and aspirations, we aren’t just building stronger libraries—we’re building a stronger California.

Editor’s Note:
Greg Lucas has served as California’s State Librarian since May 2014.

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