Golis: Let’s give some love to hometown libraries

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Thanks to a visiting granddaughter, I recently rediscovered the wonders of the public library. For any child who loves reading, the whole world opens up when you begin to wander through the shelves.

And judging by the books I carried home, I liked it, too.

Public libraries aren’t what they used to be — or at least the best libraries aren’t what they used to be.

The writer Deborah Fallows, who has visited community libraries all over America, explained: “The traditional impression of libraries as places for quiet reading, research and borrowing books … is outdated.”

The best libraries, she wrote for the Atlantic magazine, are “bustling civic centers” where technology, education and community come together.

Next time you’re in Seattle, check out the downtown Central Library, 11 stories of steel and glass designed by the architects Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus. Here you will find underground parking, more than 1.45 million books and more than 400 computers. The Seattle library is visited by more than 2 million people every year.

None of Sonoma County’s 17 libraries will become glass and steel landmarks any time soon, but they are on their way to their own transition, thanks to revenue from a tax measure approved by voters in 2016. Hours and access have been improved, collections have been expanded, buildings have been updated, children’s and cultural programs have been added.

Still, there is work to do. If you visit the branch library in Roseland, as I did last week, you will be disappointed in your hometown. Envision shelves and tables occupying the front section of an abandoned store.

Almost four years ago, this was supposed to be a temporary location.

“We’d like to get out of there as soon as possible and get into a better facility,” interim library director Susan Hildreth told me. “It’s very important for us to provide good service to Roseland.”

“It obviously needs a lot of love,” Santa Rosa Councilman Jack Tibbetts acknowledged. Tibbetts is an ex-officio member of the library advisory committee.

“The City Council knows about it,“ Tibbets said, “We do need to address it, but we’ve had a lot of other priorities.” Local agencies continue to wrestle with the budget shortfalls associated with the costs generated by the catastrophic fires of 2017.

Library officials hope to move to a better, temporary facility, while planning a permanent library that would be in place within five years.

The Roseland library’s temporary status prompted a recent Close to Home column that challenged the city of Santa Rosa to meet its obligations to this newly incorporated neighborhood (“Roseland’s library at risk if Santa Rosa doesn’t step up,” Jan. 30). “If the city doesn’t step up and agree to take responsibility for the branch,” wrote Caroline Bañuelos and Pat Kuta, “it will close …”

For too long, Roseland has been local government’s stepchild — an urban neighborhood stuck, until recently, in an unincorporated area.

Meanwhile, the governance of libraries remains complicated because city government, county government and a library commission share responsibility.

Visit a local library and you will find you can’t keep count of all the community services it provides. There are books, of course, and periodicals, movies and music, research materials and health resources, meeting spaces and cultural events, literacy programs and computer access. The list goes on. Libraries also are a place where local history is preserved.

You can even check out a digital copy of your favorite book on a smartphone (using an app called Libby) or other reading device. In the 21st century, libraries often provide computers and a broadband connection for folks otherwise cut off from the information age.

Libraries remain an essential asset to any society that values equal opportunity and learning.

In her travels, Deborah Fallows found libraries where experts help people figure out how to pay for housing, where hobbyists and entrepreneurs come together to share ideas, where classes are offered in citizenship and in the English language, and where volunteers gift each newborn in town with a cap, a T-shirt, two books and an application for a library card.

Fallows and husband, James Fallows, visited cities all over the country before writing “Our Towns, A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America.” To take the pulse of each new community, James Fallows would begin by visiting the chamber of commerce or the local newspaper, and Deborah Fallows would go straight to the library. “The visit to the public library,” she explained, “revealed (each city’s) heart and soul.”

Visit the temporary library in Roseland and you will know we can do better.

All of our libraries should be places we want to show off when our grandchildren come to town.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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