From books to 3D printers, the many reasons to thank librarians

By Greg Lucas, Special to CALmatters

Have you thanked a librarian today for everything they do for toddlers, teens, struggling readers, schools kids of all ages, at-risk families, the homeless, seniors, veterans, neighborhoods, and communities?

If you haven’t, there’s still time because this is National Library Week, and it doesn’t end until April 13.

Unfortunately, this one celebratory week leaves 51 others during which the daily devotion and dedication of California’s 16,000-plus librarians isn’t publicly applauded except by the steady patronage of 23 million California library cardholders.

Libraries are safe, accessible, non-stigmatized places that welcome everyone, even our most disenfranchised. Libraries aren’t the cure for California’s most vexing challenges, but investing more in them makes those challenges less vexing.

Early childhood learning. Afterschool homework help. Closing the opportunity gap. Libraries are key players in all three of those priorities identified by California policymakers. With greater investment, libraries can do even more.

An essential part of the education system, libraries are centers for collaboration, creativity and cultural awareness–key characteristics for success in our innovation and information-based economy.

Those traits are reinforced by virtual reality stations–California has the most of any library system in the world–3D printers, coding classes, robotics challenges, study rooms and teen zones. There’s a biotech lab at the library in La Jolla.

Several of the intervention strategies commonly used with homeless persons were pioneered by libraries like San Francisco Public Library. Over 150 libraries in California serve 250,000 free lunches to poor kids in the summer. After lunch, nearly every first-time visitor signs up for the library’s summer reading program.

Reading and books will always be a core part of the library “brand.” Great, because, really, it’s all about reading. Stronger readers get better paying jobs. A stronger reader is less likely to be a criminal. A kid who reads at the appropriate level in third grade has an upward life trajectory. It’s the opposite for those who don’t.

These are some of the reasons you’ll find more than 80 academic studies on the California State Library website that show a $1 investment in libraries yields an average $4 return, much of it in better realized human potential.

Despite that, for the third year in a row, the Trump Administration’s proposed budget zeroes out the $186 million the federal government spends to support this nation’s 9,057 libraries, of which 1,120 are in California, more than in any state.

Congress restored the $186 million the president sought to eliminate in the past two years and will likely do the same thing this year on bipartisan votes.

But the real issue is why does the richest country on earth invest only $186 million in libraries, 0.000045 percent of a $4 trillion annual budget, while knowing the strong return on investment libraries yield?

Given the broad range of beneficial services libraries provide in California and across the nation, to say nothing of the snappy $4 back for every $1 invested, isn’t it time to double-down on libraries?

To spend $372 million instead of $186 million of $4 trillion on libraries would be the equivalent of $1.14 for every American. A small price for everything libraries and librarians do, all 52 weeks of the year.

Greg Lucas is California State Librarian, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CALmatters. Read his most recent CALmatters commentaries here and here.

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