Sonoma County's libraries need help. There's no disputing it.
Studies show that during difficult times, people turn to public libraries more than ever, for assistance in finding employment, to do research in retraining efforts and to borrow books and other materials that are no longer in their budgets to buy.
But since the recent collapse, local libraries have offered limited support.
For two years, the county's 11 library branches and two rural outlets have been closed on Sundays (except for the central Santa Rosa branch), Mondays and most evenings. On Wednesdays, most branches are open until 8 p.m. On other nights, doors close at 6 p.m., just as many people are getting off work. On Saturdays, closure is at 4 p.m. Overall, operating hours have been limited to just 40 hours per week, down 23 percent from previous years.
In addition, libraries are shuttered on more than 20 days on or around holidays. During times of furloughs, closures have been more extensive. For example, in recent years, libraries have been pretty much unavailable to students during winter breaks.
This is unacceptable in a region that puts such a premium on education and public service.
But the library system has been unable to help itself, weighed down by a political and funding infrastructure that has limited its ability to seek relief.
The joint powers authority that was created by the county and four cities in 1975 to operate the library system is in the process of being upgraded. The timing couldn't be better.
A draft agreement on the changes calls for giving cities more say over library operation by giving them more representation on the authority's operating board. But the real game-changer is a provision that would allow communities to raise money to expand hours and services at their home branches.
The proposal has drawn criticism from those concerned that it would create an uneven playing field between those communities that have the resources to expand services and those that don't.
"It's a social equity issue," said Supervisor Shirlee Zane. "It will erode the heart of our library system."
The concern is understandable. But we don't believe the solution is to have a library system that's socially equitable at the expensive of being operationally insufficient and, for many, unavailable.
Fortunately, the board voted 4-1 to support the proposal. It goes next to the nine cities; they, too, should approve.
Under the plan, libraries would still be funded through a portion of the county's property tax — 2.5 percent of 1 percent — a funding source that will continue to fluctuate with the housing market. But this proposal will finally allow advocates of expanded service to go out and raise money for that purpose.
This would open an important new chapter for Sonoma County's library system, one that would ensure that locals who need the support of library staff during difficult times, will find them not just willing but available.