What Bay Area libraries spend per capita can vary dramatically from district to district, with jurisdictions like St. Helena and Mill Valley spending as much as nine times as much as those in Stockton-San Joaquin and Contra Costa County, according to numbers from the California State Library’s 2019-2020 library survey. 

Of 38 library districts in and around the Bay Area, St. Helena spent more per person within its boundaries ($190) than anywhere else, followed by Mill Valley ($167), Berkeley ($153), Burlingame ($153) and Palo Alto ($150). 

At the other end of the range was Stockton-San Joaquin ($20) and Contra Costa ($34), Daly City ($34), Hayward ($35) and San Jose ($41). 

“A 2018 study called ‘From Awareness to Funding’ showed that 59 percent of voters believe that funding for libraries come from non-local sources, like state or federal funds, donations, etc.,” said Jayanti Addleman, the director of library services for Hayward and president of the California Library Association. “But the reality is that 86 percent of funding for libraries comes from local funding. Poorly funded libraries in municipalities that have smaller coffers are most likely struggling to serve communities with the greatest need.” 

“They often don’t have the donor base, volunteer base, or support groups that can help offset the challenges.” 

Libraries in 2021 are also dealing with having to adjust to another major obstacle: the pandemic 

“The investment goes to a few major categories (staff, collections, technology, community spaces, partnerships), each of which the recent pandemic showed us in technicolor is essential to our communities,” said Jill Bourne, the city librarian at the San Jose Public Library. “When services in communities across the U.S. shut down, the importance of access to resources was acute and the lack of access was painful.” 

As part of the San Jose Public Library’s SJ Access initiative, residents can check out most of the equipment needed to access the internet — from Wi-Fi hotspots and iPads to laptop devices such as these HP Chromebooks. (Photo courtesy of San Jose Public Library)

San Jose’s libraries worked with schools and community partners to issue 16,000 hotspots during the pandemic. 

“The sharing of resources and ideas in a public library has a greater impact on individuals and communities than the sum of its individual parts,” Bourne said. “Especially in times of civil strife and trauma.” 

Libraries’ total expenditures per capita is calculated by dividing the total operating expenditures for a fiscal year by the total number of people living in each library’s service area, said Alex Vassar, the communication manager for the California State Library. The number of people in each area is based on population estimates from the California Department of Finance. 

Income numbers are taken from budgets reported in the annual California Public Library Survey. That annual operational money comes from federal, state and local sources. Revenue for major capital expenditures, contributions to endowments, revenue passed through from other agencies, or carryover funds from a previous year aren’t included in those totals. 

But the funding formula varies. In Contra Costa County – the third most populous county in the Bay Area – the budget for the current fiscal year is $36.1 million, less than one percent of the county’s entire budget, said Brooke Converse, the public information officer for the Contra Costa County Library. 

Inside the Brentwood Library, one of 26 branches of the Contra Costa County Library system. Budget constraints may force some branches to reduce additional library hours that cities currently pay for. (Photo by Roni Gehlke/Facebook)

“By any measure, the Contra Costa County Library is significantly underfunded and, as a result, many residents have limited access to the library facilities they need and deserve,” Converse said. “This scarcity of funding has been acknowledged by the county in both its current general plan and new draft general plan.” 

Typically, libraries in unincorporated areas get less to work with – unless cities kick in for extra hours, as happens in a dozen Contra Costa cities for branches of the county library that are inside city limits.  

“In general, cities with less wealthy residents have access to fewer library open hours in their own communities, compared to cities with wealthier residents,” Converse said.  

Mill Valley, which is second on the list of spending per capita, falls into the latter category. 

“The Mill Valley Library is indeed well-funded,” said Anji Brenner, Mill Valley’s city librarian. “In addition to our city-funded budget, we have two support groups – the Friends of the Library and the Mill Valley Library Foundation. Their support allows us to offer programs and services that would not otherwise be possible.” 

The Children’s Room at the Mill Valley Public Library in Mill Valley, Marin County, Calif., on Sept. 28, 2021. (Harika Maddala/ Bay City News)

Brenner said other factors also play a part: the financial health of the municipality, its tax base, and its level of support from the decision-makers are huge – which is why libraries try so hard to keep services free, or at least low-cost. 

“The disparity is, of course, very significant,” Brenner said. “You see this same disparity in other services that vary from community to community. Libraries try very hard to make what they offer freely available to anyone who walks through their doors, or anyone who wants to use their services remotely, but most people rely on using the library closest to where they live. People who live in poorer communities are unlikely to have access to the same level of service available in wealthier communities.” 

“While the exact needs of patrons may look different from community to community, patrons of every community have needs,” Brenner said. “A library is more than an important public resource; it is an essential public resource.” 

The good news is local library funding is going up, at least in places like Hayward, Addleman said.  

“The reality is that typically, the greater the need in the community, the chances are that the tougher the funding challenges for libraries. Yet, investment in libraries is actually a very sound long-term investment in your community.”