Federal funding would be a game-changer for San Francisco’s beloved libraries

It’s time to renew the historic Mission and Chinatown branches and build in Ocean View

By Michael Lambert

I was fortunate to grow up in a family that, although lower middle class, had the resources to purchase books. I loved my “Sesame Street,” “Star Wars” and “Sweet Pickles” books until they fell to pieces from repeated use. My grandmother raised me, and her nurturing of my literacy skills and love of reading allowed me to become the first member of our family to go to college and earn a graduate degree. I saw firsthand the transformative power of reading and public libraries.

Libraries are anchor institutions that respond to community needs, from digital connectivity to physical resiliency. These last 18 months, libraries transitioned to community learning hubs to support youth and families with distance learning, providing safe neighborhood-based spaces with connectivity.

Through extreme heat and wildfires, our libraries have served as cooling and air respite centers, even during the pandemic. Library staff also played a role in supporting The City’s COVID response. Last summer, more than half of the library’s workforce aided in the public health emergency response to distribute food, shelter individuals experiencing homelessness and perform contact tracing.

When unemployment reached 12.5%, staff helped patrons find pathways to economic recovery with the Work it: Jobs, Business and Finance program. A year later, the Jobs and Careers department has seen a 500% increase in online job search classes and phone help, a 280% increase in personal finance classes and a 400% increase in small business assistance.

As we resumed services, I’ve been reminded how much San Franciscans, like Mayor London Breed, love their libraries. She kicked off the Summer Together initiative to ensure every San Francisco Unified School District student received 10 books to seed home libraries and inspire children’s love of reading and learning.

The library plays an important role in our city and, as we restore hours this fall, the library will help to reconnect a community through lively in-person programs that provide forums for discussion, discovery and simple togetherness.

The San Francisco Public Library has a vision to renew the historic Mission and Chinatown branches, and to build a regional destination library for the Ocean View neighborhood, which has outgrown its current facility. Each branch is heavily used and serves historically underserved communities. We aim to transform these libraries into modern, adaptable, resilient spaces while maintaining their inherent charm and reflecting the unique culture of the surrounding neighborhoods. The estimated cost to renovate the Mission and Chinatown branches is $53 million. The new Ocean View library capital costs are estimated at $47 million.

The library’s renovation efforts are made possible by strong support from San Francisco voters, donors and volunteers, with additional funding from our state and federal governments. That is why the current Congressional negotiations about a budget package are so crucial. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to meet the needs of working families locally and it is critical that libraries be included in that bill.

In fact, Congress already has a model called the Build America’s Libraries Act, which would provide $5 billion for library renovation and construction – of which more than $500 million would come to California. If the budget package includes these funds, we could help advance these critically important local projects.

In Sacramento, we are grateful for Gov. Gavin Newsom and our own local Assemblyman Phil Ting, who made a bold $439 million investment in public library infrastructure in this year’s budget. While this historic investment is critical and timely, library renovation needs statewide total close to $5 billion to address facility shortcomings.

Our library system has previously demonstrated the exceptional value of strategic investments like the $200 million Branch Library Improvement Program, completed in 2014, that renovated or rebuilt 23 libraries and built a new branch in Mission Bay. A Controller’s Office study found that for every $1 invested, San Francisco realized a return on investment of $5.19 to $9.11.

Thanks to that effort, the San Francisco Public Library, recipient of the 2018 National Library of the Year Award, is one of the premier national urban libraries and draws over 6 million visitors annually. We’re a leader in developing models of inclusion, initiating innovative approaches to programs and services for the diverse and underserved segments of our community and redefining how urban libraries can advance racial equity.

It’s critical that Congress include public library funding in the budget package. Federal library funding would be a game-changer for America’s libraries, and enable us to expedite local branch projects and sustain strong library service for generations.

Michael Lambert is city librarian for the City and County of San Francisco.

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