How to love your library

By Jane Sykes Wilson

There’s a photograph of an old trifold brochure from the 1980s I came across the other day online. It was a pamphlet with the title: Take Politics Out of the Library, and the image is a little girl, probably now in her mid-40s, trying to open the closed doors of the Boulder Public Library.

Those ballot initiatives from 35 years ago went to voters, and voters approved it. We funded the library, because that’s what Boulder does. Boulder is generous. Boulder loves its libraries. Boulder understands the value of intellectual curiosity, freedom, and exchange. It’s been a long while since voters have had to face those evocative images of closed library doors. But, here we are.

The library’s current funding picture is quite dire, the budget has consistently been cut over the years. A recent example, during the pandemic the library’s budget was cut by 16%, despite only accounting for 3% of the city’s overall budget. The results have a real, direct impact on the community. Programs paused, hours reduced, and maintenance deferred.

Ninety percent of the library’s programs and outreach are funded through grants, many of them from the Boulder Library Foundation. The programs funded through these grants are vital community services:

Student One gives BVSD students access to databases and homework help for free, simply through their student ID.

The BLDG 61 Makerspace located in the Main library has an apprenticeship program that provides low-income students with materials and a scholarship to pursue their engineering and technological ideas, with staff support and industry-grade equipment at their fingertips.

In April 2020, the library distributed 400 unlimited data Wi-Fi hotspots to seniors and low-income families, largely in North Boulder, so that they would not have to sit in the library parking lot to access Wi-Fi from the library’s router to connect with their online classes, do homework, and connect with loved ones. This was also a grant-funded endeavor.

Meanwhile, when extremely cold temps hit Boulder in mid-February, space heaters had to be mounted and duct-taped atop the book shelves in the children’s room, since the infrastructure needed to fully install heating and cooling could not be budgeted.

BLDG 61’s hours, like those of the branches, have been reduced due to staff layoffs, and the programs mentioned above, of which there are many more, can not expand, even though we know the demand and the need is there.

The library’s cardholders represent 121% of the city population, meaning that roughly 1/3 of users live outside city limits. It’s time to bring those people in to modernize the funding base for equality and longevity. This happens through a library district, the funding for which voters would approve.

Libraries are, for some in our community, one of the only places in town where they can be in community with others, connect with loved ones, attend a free class, and, yes, also find books. Our library is also a Makerspace, a gallery featuring local artists, one of the only places for free public meeting rooms anywhere in town, a place where adults can get help learning to read and write. A place where immigrants can take citizenship classes, and talk one on one with a volunteer to improve their English skills. The library is social infrastructure that strengthens our community, and that requires investment.

Voters will likely have a chance to vote again in favor of funding their library in 2022 – and this time, they’ll vote for a long-term funding proposal – a library district – to last well beyond the time when today’s children are grown adults . Putting the library on firmer footing through a property tax, levied at 4%, will include taxpayers in unincorporated areas around the city. In return, the library can restore hours to branches, expand into Gunbarrel and Niwot with new branches, and restart its incredible outreach and programming across the community.

The question before us isn’t “do you love our library?” We all do. The question is: “will you vote to give the library sustainable funding?” It should not be political. It’s a question of investment. That’s how you love a library.

Jane Sykes Wilson is chair of the Boulder Library Commission and previously served on the Boulder Library District Advisory Board and the Boulder Library Foundation.

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