California’s public libraries resilient despite lacking funds

In response to California budget deficits in 2011, Governor Brown cut direct state funding from public libraries, slashing funds from the California Library Services Act (CLSA), the Public Library Foundation and the state literacy program. Since then, California’s legislators have gradually allotted funding back into the state library fund, but these funds come with restrictions that inhibit local libraries’ freedom to decide how to use the money for improvements.

With a lack of direct state funding, Azusa City Librarian Reed Strege has seen public libraries suffer, facing cutbacks in the form of fewer full-time staff members and decreased hours.


Established in 1959, the Azusa City Library is located down the street from Azusa City Hall. Photo by Maureen Wolff

“They used to just write everybody a check, but they don’t do that anymore. It’s competitive, and you write grants,” said Strege.

Governor Jerry Brown’s California budget proposal for education in fiscal year 2016-2017 adds $4.8 million in funding for public libraries. About $1.8 million of this sum will be added to the state library budget baseline. The remaining $3 million will be a one-time fund for the upcoming year, intended to help libraries move toward improved technology and digitalization.

budget increases

Governor Brown’s budget proposal adds almost $4.8 million to one-time and ongoing funds to state libraries via the California Library Services Act. Courtesy of the California Department of Finance.

“It probably sounds like a lot of money, but if you really think about it, it’s really not,” said Strege. He explained that once distributed, state funding doesn’t go very far among public libraries.

Of the $170.7 billion expenditure budget proposal, Governor Brown allots approximately $51.6 million total for the State Library Fund—about .03% of California’s budget.

library budget

The total funding for California’s libraries for fiscal year 2016-2017 is projected to be approximately $51.6 million. Courtesy of the California Department of Finance

Like other public libraries, the Azusa branch must use its grant-awarded funds for projects that are specifically delineated by the state. Though limited in amount and scope, state funding for the Azusa City Library has been effectively put to use in areas such as the library’s adult literacy program and the improvement of broadband internet networks.

Often, additions to state library funding are not given through permanent additions to the budget baseline. Instead, much of state funding comes in the form of one-time grants, the money from which must be used up for a specific project within the year it is given. Neighborhood Connections is one of Azusa’s current programs that is funded by a one-year grant, with funding coming from federally-based Library Services and Technology Act (LTSA) money that has been filtered through the states. The program allows the Azusa community members to consult with a bilingual Community Resource Specialist who can help provide information about health care, housing, employment and more.


Photo by Maureen Wolff

Seeking to offer its visitors up-to-date content and programs, the Azusa City Library branch offers free WiFi and access to computers. While Strege emphasized that it’s the people themselves that make the libary thrive, he also stated that budget limitations can inhibit access to key resources. Other than the addition of desktop computers, Strege said that the library looks much the same as it did when it opened it 1959. He pointed to poor lighting, scuffed-up bottoms of doors, and worn-out carpets in the library classroom.

“We can get by day to day with the money that we have,” he offered, citing the library’s offering of after-school tutoring, children’s story time, citizenship classes and computer workshops. But when it comes to facility improvements, the money just isn’t available in the city or state budget.

funding azusa

Courtesy of Maureen Wolff

The city of Azusa granted the library just over one million dollars for the past fiscal year, and as of 2013-2014 estimates, about 91 percent of the library’s funding is local. In addition to funding from the city, the library receives grants from the Canyon City Foundation, an Azusa-based foundation that supports arts and education.

Less than one percent of the Azusa City Library’s funding coming from the state. Because this small allocation of state funding comes with such strict parameters, sometimes the city’s budget is simply insufficient to address the scope of the local library’s needs.

Chair of the California Library Association’s Advocacy and Legislation Committee Sara Jones points to another issue facing public libraries: the disparity in support and resource distribution between cities and counties across California. While the library Jones directs—the Marin County Free Library—is amply supported, areas such as Kern County struggle to maintain taxpayer support.

While state funding additions will not solve all problems, Jones said, they can help build momentum. “The greatest extent it has is to leverage collaboration and cooperation,” she offered, believing that the real strength in libraries does not come from money, but from librarian and citizen advocacy.

While Strege allows that the Azusa library building is “badly outdated,” he hopes that the city will eventually prioritize funds to replace the facilities. Despite the lack of funds, Strege looks forward to future programs and improvements.


Photo by Maureen Wolff

“I think the library is moving more toward an educational model and a community meeting space,” said Strege. “I would like to see more classes about more topics, and more direct assistance programs to help people learn about important topics like technology, personal finance, health…We do a lot right now, especially with how little time and money we have, but I think we could do more.”

Director of the American Library Association’s Center for the Future of Libraries Miguel Figueroa said that while economic downturn has had negative effects on state and federal funding for libraries, California’s libraries are on the forefront of adapting their roles to reflect larger trends.

“The future is technology, but it’s also lots of other changes that are happening,” said Figueroa, asserting that many of the innovations happening in the nation’s libraries are not technologically based. While libraries are still grounded in the culture and rhythms of sharing information, many are encouraging not only reading, but doing. Many libraries are providing what Figueroa calls “maker spaces,” allotting room within their facilities for visitors to create and experience learning and expression beyond books.

Public libraries have adapted to a lack of funding with agility, but the fight to save state funding for public libraries is far from over. Governor Brown’s 2016-2017 budget—and specifically his allotment for state library funding—remain open to revision. His proposals for state library funds are expected to be reviewed by the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance on May 4, according to a CLA press release.


Children use the computers in the youth section of the Azusa City Library. Photo by Maureen Wolff

In the meantime, Governor Brown has expressed strong support for California’s libraries, declaring April 10-16 of this year “California Library Week.” He stated in a proclamation, “California’s 1,112 libraries provide a multiplicity of important community functions: fostering a love of reading in people of all ages and walks of life, providing academic support to schoolchildren, teaching literacy skills to adults and serving as a safe haven and connection to social support for our most vulnerable citizens…I applaud all of our public libraries’ efforts to modernize their services, and my budget continues to provide support for library broadband access.”

CLA is calling on all state library supporters to write to legislators on the budget subcommittee, asking them to approve funding proposals and to allocations additional funds for broadband connection grants and adult literacy programs. The budget will receive final approval this summer.





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