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Some people feel that libraries are outdated and irrelevant in 2021, but those people clearly haven’t visited a library in a long time.  

Libraries are still critical and integral parts of the communities they serve, providing free access to a wide range of resources for people of all ages and needs.  

Libraries are warm and cool spaces during extreme weather; they offer access to Wi-Fi, computers and charging stations to those otherwise lacking resources. Libraries provide free access to books, e-books and e-audiobooks, newspapers, magazines, learning resources, job and benefit assistance, and dozens of other services to help with topics like learning a new language or improving a professional skill.

But offering these services requires money, and just like at other organizations, operational costs are always rising.

The Contra Costa County Library gets creative to find financial resources, which isn’t easy because library funding gets complicated. In Contra Costa, a county system with 26 branches, nothing is straightforward when it comes to paying the bills to serve the needs of a very diverse population.

Contra Costa County doesn’t provide general fund monies for libraries. The system pulls from a dedicated fund of 1.5% of the 1% ad valorem property tax. The library’s budget for fiscal year ’21-’22 is $36.1 million, less than 1% of the county’s entire budget.  

Contra Costa ranks dead last among East Bay libraries in funding per capita, and 114th out of 183 public library systems statewide.

The library does get some funding from other sources, which is where things get complicated. The library partners with 18 county municipalities, with 12 contributing funding for additional hours at branch libraries. Nearly every branch has a “friends” group — dedicated volunteers soliciting donations and holding book-sale fundraisers. Some locations also have foundations, and a few even have endowments. The amount of revenue collected by each group varies wildly and is unpredictable.

Grants are another possibility. Through partnerships with cities and the California State Library, Contra Costa’s library identifies opportunities to apply for infrastructure and facility improvement grants. Staff also use its community connections to locate and apply for grants, a search often driven by goals laid out in the library’s Strategic Plan and according to specific community needs.

One such example comes from the San Pablo Library, where Gia Paolini secured grant money to purchase cell phone charging lockers, allowing users to secure phones in a locked compartment while charging. Patrons plugging devices into randomly open power outlets or unsecured power towers leaves them vulnerable to theft. Library users who are unstably housed or experiencing homelessness often have no other place to charge their phone, cutting them off from emergency communication and information. The grant covers charging lockers at four libraries: Antioch, Concord, Pittsburg and San Pablo. Grants help the library provide important programming, resources and services to the community it couldn’t otherwise afford. 

The library searches for opportunities to advocate for more funding from the county. County librarian Alison McKee recently presented in front of the Measure X Community Advisory Board (MXCAB). Measure X is a sales tax increase passed by voters, for which the county Board of Supervisors created the MXCAB to advise them how to spend it. McKee asked for help with the severely underfunded libraries in Contra Costa and to address the inequities in open hours between libraries in affluent cities and those in less wealthy parts of the county. She also requested funds to address years of deferred maintenance on several county-owned library buildings. Though the MXCAB did not recommend the increase, the final decision will be made by the supervisors later this year. You can read more about the presentation here

Despite ongoing financial challenges, library staff does extraordinary work. This has never been more evident than over the last two years, as the library recovered from a cyberattack, navigated the pandemic and dealt with smoke events and power outages. You can review some of the amazing accomplishments in the Strategic Plan Progress Report: Responding with Resilience. But that also means the library is stretched extremely thin and unable to address the needs of those most vulnerable in the community. With adequate funding, the library could do so much more.

There are many ways to support your local library: through tax-deductible donating, at ccclib.org/donate, or advocacy. You can also support the library through any friends group or foundation associated with the library. Most importantly, you can make your voice heard by sending letters to elected officials or speaking at a public board of supervisors or city council meetings and showing your support for the library.

Brooke Converse, Contra Costa County Library Public Information Officer

For the last six years, Brooke Converse has served as the community and media relations coordinator and public information officer for the Contra Costa County Library. In her time with the Library, she has taken on such projects as helping to redesign and launch the new website, introduce five new library card designs and craft the marketing campaign to eliminate fines. She has helped the library to navigate communications and media relations through two cyberattacks, PG&E planned power outages, air quality events and the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to working for the Library, Converse was a media specialist at the University of California Office of the President, the communications officer for the alumni association at UC Davis and the media director at the California State Fair. She has a background in television news production and has worked for several stations in Northern California.