Underfunded Libraries Are Critical Infrastructure – Voice of San Diego

Shelves of books at the Central Library in downtown San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Mayor Todd Gloria passionately laid out his vision for San Diego in his State of the City 2022 Address. The Mayor advocated for needed investments in infrastructure, policing and public safety, as well as tools to fight homelessness and housing. He also detailed, with conviction, the main priorities of his administration for the coming year. I share the mayor’s vision that to be the most beautiful city in America and to be truly awesome, we all need to feel safe, have access to housing, and know that as our city grows, our roads, our water and other tangible assets are modern and capable of handling such growth.

However, conspicuously absent from this vision are investments in the kinds of services that, when well funded and managed, create pathways to safety, health and economic development. What was missing was a vision and a plan to invest in what makes our communities great places to live: our neighborhood services.

City Council leaders recognize that libraries and parks are critical infrastructure. But recent budgets do not reflect the growing demand for services provided by these ministries. A recent municipal order report showed San Diego must invest a minimum of $200 million in its parks to meet basic health and safety standards. the Library Master Plan Framework identified a library maintenance backlog of $50 million. This figure doesn’t even include the costs of bringing older San Diego facilities up to code or the long overdue needs to expand spaces to meet community needs.

Beyond overwhelming maintenance needs, continued operating budget shortfalls have prevented the city’s libraries or parks from reaching their potential. For example, it is difficult for the library to have a full impact on reading, literacy and academic achievement when its annual budget for books and materials is among the lowest in the country among metropolitan library systems, according to as part of the library’s master plan.

Lack of access to basic educational services, economic development and employment resources, safe green spaces and recreation centers are repeatedly cited as major contributing factors to crime and incarceration rates. These are precisely the essential services provided by our libraries and parks. Substantial peer-reviewed evidence suggests that investing in these areas of social infrastructure is an effective, long-term strategy to reduce crime, boost educational achievement, and create job links and economic sustainability.

Baltimore turned to libraries to understand and stop the root causes of crime. Every Library Institute Research shows how libraries affect reading and literacy skills – and ultimately reduce crime. Libraries and librarians are more often on the front lines of homeless support than they ever were. A local partnership between the San Diego Public Library and the San Diego Workforce Partnership also provides resources, skills building, and connections to local job seekers.

It is, perhaps long overdue, to recognize that a long-term, generational approach to funding social infrastructure will, in fact, lead to the kinds of results that the mayor’s vision suggests. It does not benefit the people of San Diegan to continually present either/or a funding model for our city. Now is the time to recognize the long-term value, impact and contribution to social well-being that meaningful investments in libraries and parks will have on our community.

I agree with Gloria’s vision of San Diego’s ability to become a truly great American city. To achieve this, we must recognize a holistic approach to funding basic services. Academic, social and cultural investments stem the flow of crime, create and promote economic activity and, frankly, create great communities.

Last year, the mayor presented his 2021 State of the City Address at the San Ysidro Library. He noted that this new branch became one of the busiest in the system pre-COVID and how library staff responded during COVID with outdoor computer labs and other crucial services.

He noted that the San Ysidro Library “is a testament to what we can build together when we work together,” he added. “This library, and what it means to this community, is a symbol of who we should be as a city. It’s a nice reminder of the importance of investing in traditionally underserved neighborhoods.

The mayor is right. Significant investments in institutions such as libraries and parks make economic and social sense that will help realize his vision. I call on Gloria’s administration to make these investments in community services a priority for its administration in 2022.

About Homer Yonker

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