Sunday, November 22, 2009

Wright Library: Much To Grieve, But Much To Be Thankful For

As many of you have probably already read, this morning even the Star came up short in its quest to find a way to keep Wright Library open. After running through all the possible ways we in Ventura might come up with the funds to keep Wright open, the Star’s last “Hail Mary” pitch was to put on a Kevin Costner benefit concert.

The Star is not alone in wanting to wave a magic wand to solve Ventura’s library problem. Over the past couple of weeks, I have received and read an extraordinary range of communications about the possible closure of Wright Library. Most people who have contacted me directly have simply expressed great disappointment that the library might close. Many have asked – as the Star did today – why we can’t wave some magic wand to keep the library open. Some have engaged in an almost obsessive analysis of every last dollar in the library budget to prove that Ventura is being short-changed. And a few have accused me of being part of a conspiracy to close the library.

All of these viewpoints are understandable as we work through our collective grief at the closing of a beloved institution. The last thing I want to do is close Wright Library, especially with five pre-paid years left on the lease with Ventura College. As many of you are aware, it has been a part of my family’s life for decades. My daughter -- now in college – grew up there from the time she was a toddler until she graduated from Foothill Technology High School across the street. My mother is still remembered lovingly by the Wright staff as a dedicated volunteer.

Unfortunately, for 15 years as we have struggled to keep Wright open, we have not reached a community consensus on how to deal with the most basic problem: If we are going to maintain our current level of library service, we will have to provide more money from our community to do so. Again and again, our community has expressed a strong wish to keep Wright open. Unlike many of our surrounding communities, however, Venturans have chosen not provide the augmented funding needed to keep it open.

And so now, with libraries as with so many other public services, we face a difficult choice. We have to live within our means. That means cutting back our library service to a level that will be financially sustainable for the next few years while we determine how to create a solid long-term foundation for excellent library service in the future.

Even though the underlying facts are grim, as Thanksgiving approaches I believe we have an awful lot to be thankful for on the library front in Ventura. Even if Wright closes as scheduled next week, we as a community are endowed with great gifts that can help maintain library service for now and create great libraries in the future.

First, we should be thankful for all of the people and organizations that have allowed us to have more than 40 years of continuous library service at Day and Telegraph.

Over the years, our community has benefited from the remarkable generosity of others in building and maintaining Wright. We must have everlasting thanks to Helen P. Wright herself and to Ventura College, which has agreed to forego the use of their property for more than 40 years so that Wright could be available to the public. In our thanks, we must also remember the remarkable efforts of the San Buenaventura Friends of the Library, not only for their heroic efforts in keeping Wright open this year but for their dedication day in and day out to ensure that all our Ventura libraries have enough money for new books. I’m thankful for the Ventura Auto Dealers Association, which provided almost $70,000 to bail Wright out one year; and my colleagues and predecessors on the City Council, who committed $50,000 to $100,000 several times (during a better economy) to do the same. Finally, I’m thankful for my colleagues on the County Library Services Commission, who agreed for more than a decade to provide subsidies from countywide and state funds so we could keep Wright open.

But now, tax revenue for the city, the county, the library system, and the state are all in decline and will continue to go down for the foreseeable future; all these government agencies are cutting back on everything from salaries to paper clips. Private donors such as the car dealers are struggling to stay in business, and the faithful Friends – after raising an amazing $100,000 in five months – are tapped out and exhausted.

Second, we should be thankful that we have E.P. Foster Library to fall back on – and we should be especially thankful that the City and private donors paid for a major renovation and expansion only ten years ago.

Yes, Wright is more centrally located than Foster, and parking is easier there. But the fact is that it is a third the size of Foster. Foster may not be in a convenient location for many people, but it is the only building we currently have that is capable of serving as a large, central library.

I don’t favor the alternating days idea. It was confusing and frustrating the last time we tried it, back in the early ‘90s. We will have two locations, which is more convenient for patrons, but many of our materials are unavailable to the patrons at any given time. And because we still have to operate both buildings, it doesn’t save that much money.

That means we have to consolidate library service in one location – at either Wright of Foster.

Close Wright in order to consolidate at Foster, and we can easily move all the materials, personnel, and programs (including the popular Paws for Reading) to Foster. We lose a convenient location, but we retain the guts of our library service. We have a solid foundation to build on in the future.

But close Foster in order to consolidate at Wright, and we lose most of the library materials located here in Ventura. Because Wright is not big enough to accommodate more materials, most of the books accumulated over many generations here in Ventura will be distributed to libraries in other cities. We lose dozens of computers that are in use from morning till night every day – a vital resource for our community at a time when so many people are looking for jobs. We lose the genealogy room. We lose the guts of our library service here in Ventura – and it will be almost impossible to rebuild it, ever.

So we should be thankful that our predecessors on the City Council, at the library agency, and at the Friends of the Library had the foresight, a decade ago, to expend more than $2 million in tax funds and private donations to renovate and expand Foster. A dozen years ago, when I was first appointed to the city’s Library Advisory Commission, many people wanted Foster torn down. It was old, cramped, poorly ventilated, and uncomfortable. But the second floor was opened up for public library use for the first time ever, and the entire building was renovated.. Now, we are able to consolidate our library service in a building that is in good shape – airy, comfortable, spacious. It’s far from perfect – it’s not a fabulous building, like Camarillo’s new library or even Oxnard’s downtown library – but we are lucky to have such a well-renovated library to fall back on in these hard times. The choices would be far more grim if Foster’s renovation had not occurred a decade ago.

Third, we should be thankful that Ventura’s libraries have dedicated funding of about $2 million a year that can’t be used for anything else.

The $2 million total is not nearly as much as we would like, obviously. But it’s $2 million that goes straight to the library agency for use in Ventura, derived from the property taxes that people in the Ventura area pay each year. This money can’t be diverted by the city or the county to any other use.

To my mind, what this means is that, if we consolidate library service at Foster, we have temporarily fallen back to a fiscally sustainable level of library service. Our libraries will have taken an enormous hit. But we will be in the position of saying that we are now living within our means, and no further service cuts are acceptable.

And fourth, we should be thankful for Ventura’s library advocates – strong, passionate, and giving – because we are going to need their brains, their passion, and their effort going forward.

The whole battle to keep Wright open has reminded us that Ventura is endowed with creative, passionate, and committed library advocates. This is our greatest community asset as we move forward and try to shape a strong future for libraries in our community.

The truth is that libraries are in transition, and we cannot be sure what they will look like – or precisely how they will deliver library services – in the future. Increasingly, the role of providing library services is divorced from the physical location of the library. So as we move forward we have to figure out how best to provide services in a cost-effective manner, and what type of physical locations are required for libraries and other community services.

Even as our library system has struggled with budget cuts, we have made tremendous strides in providing library services online. With a library card from your own computer, you can already access many databases that would be too expensive for individuals, and even download e-books and audio books. Soon, you might even be able to load your Kindle with an e-book at a library kiosk anywhere in town – just like going to the ATM.

But libraries are still important as community gathering places too. That’s why the loss of Wright is so huge to the surrounding neighborhood. As we move forward as a community, we will also have to make some decisions about the physical location of libraries. Should there by just one big one, as there is in Camarillo? Should we have many small libraries? Can we afford many small libraries – or should we combine library service with senior services, youth services, and many other possible services on a neighborhood level for cost-effectiveness?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I do know we will need all the brains, all the dedication, and all the passion we can must in the months and years ahead to figure out. And so the last thing that I am thankful for is the dedication and creativity of the people serving right now on our city’s library task force, who are charged with figuring out what the future of Ventura’s libraries will look like. If you want to know move about task force, you can contact Peter Brown at

There is much to grieve over in the likely closure of Wright Library. But there is much to be thankful for in this community that has always been so dedicated to libraries – and, I’m sure, will continue to be in the future.