Letters to the editor: Library district

Photo by Alfons Morales on Unsplash

Friday, March 18, 2022 (Updated Friday, April 1)

These letters were written in response to the Boulder Beat Opinion Panel’s take on the proposed library district.

In a changing world, Boulder’s library stays busy

In his March 18 letter to the editor, Buzz Burell — in questioning the need for a library district — suggested that libraries were not keeping up with the digital times and are therefore under utilized. I have been a library lover all my life, but I completely understand this line of questioning. People who don’t use the library question the modern relevance for this timeless institution. 

I have been involved with the Boulder Public Library for the past 9 years, as a Boulder Library Foundation member, an employee and now chair of the Boulder Library Commission. Aside from these “official” positions, my family utilizes library services weekly. From meetings to storytimes to the reading buddies program, flower arranging classes, gardening classes, Spanish lessons and conversation clubs, musical performances, stuffie sleepovers, to learning to 3D print missing woodwork for our 100-year-old house, the list is endless. 

Boulder Library is one of the busiest libraries in the State of Colorado. This is no secret. You can easily look up year-to-year data on libraries at Library Research Services.

Burrell cited a national study that states, “Library building use dropped 31% between 2010 and 2018.” I have no idea what is going on in Sheboygan or Poughkeepsie or Knoxville, but Boulder Public Library had over 1 million visitors in 2018. It is one of the busiest public facilities in all of Boulder. As a reference point, Pearl Street Mall estimates about 1.23 million visitors that same year.

And folks aren’t just walking through the door. They are using the library. At Boulder Public Library, between 2010-2018 (again using LRS data):

  • Library visits increased 6%
  • Electronic downloads of books increased over 200%
  • Children’s book circulation increased 42%
  • Total circulation increased 14%
  • Total number of registered borrowers increased 33%
  • Program attendance at library events increased 52%

Like with a lot of organizations, the pandemic hit the library hard: closed buildings, laid off staff, budget cuts. But last summer, BPL saw its highest participation ever in the summer reading program, with over 4,000 people (mostly kids) reading over 2 million minutes. Digital downloads of books during the pandemic made up 30% of the library’s entire circulation.

Contrary to popular perception, the public library has never been about books. It has always been about reading and the nurturing of dialogue in public space. John Cotton Dana — the first public librarian of Denver, from 1889-1897 — said the public library was foremost about “happiness.” By that I believe he meant we were a community gathering place where folks from all walks of life come together.

The predicted demise of the library is constant, yet people keep coming and the library keeps growing. Could it be that reading begets reading, and an informed citizenry makes for a good community? Children and families make up 40-45% of the library’s patrons. After them, according to national studies, millennials make up the highest user group of public libraries.

I suspect John Cotton Dana was on to something. It seems to me that each year that passes, there is less and less public space that is free and open to all, and even fewer public spaces still committed to equitable, courteous and accurate access to the information and the tools and collaborators we all need to make sense of the world.

I doubt that this will be any less true tomorrow or a year from now. Mr Burell and the Boulder community are right to question the library’s usage and if our current model is the best way to deliver these services to the community. The Boulder community is voting with their patronage, bricks win over clicks.

— Jane Sykes Wilson

Libraries are essential for families

I would like to voice my support of the formation of the Boulder Public Library district. For the cost of a monthly streaming video platform or eating a meal out, a library district could be funded to provide library access and services to so many more households. It’s a matter of priority — a library district is my priority.

Pre-pandemic, library story time was a meeting place for me and my two daughters. I made many supportive friendships with other new moms that I needed to make it as a new mother. Many of these friends have become our family.

Once COVID hit, the library became essential for the literature-based homeschooling curriculum I was using with my daughters. Books soothe my kids. We borrowed 40-plus books every two weeks.

Currently, my 8-year-old’s school relies on BPL to support their classroom libraries, because they do not have an in-school library. I am part of a committee at her school that curates books focusing on equity, diversity and inclusion for each classroom. I have been able to find all of the books that I researched at BPL.

I recently stopped at the North Boulder branch and left with a big smile because of the kindness and enthusiasm from their staff. They were so welcoming. My daughter was invited to their Spanish-language play session at a local park.

We also participated in a live online introduction to felting lesson. We loved it and will continue this craft on our own.

There are so many more meaningful experiences I could share. This is why formation of a library district is my priority: to provide more families with access to these services, which create lifelong experiences.

— Joanne Sullivan

Now is not the right time to raise taxes

I’m a book lover. More importantly, I recognize and value how good books can educate, entertain and motivate readers, especially young ones. However, the current library district proposal over-reaches by trying to do too much, too fast.

I’m strongly opposed to raising property taxes at this time, unless emergency funds are needed for public health and safety issues. City and county budgets have been stressed and funding volatile due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These entities are always balancing competing community needs and demands with limited resources. 

Most of the library’s funding (there is a small dedicated tax) comes from the city’s General Fund, which is supported by a combination of sales tax and property tax. The General Fund is also used to provide a number of municipal services, including police, fire, transportation, parks, housing, human services, arts and city administrative functions. When sales tax revenues decline temporarily (as they did in 2020 and 2021), the budgets for all of these services are cut, with a priority to maintain basic public safety services.

The library’s funding has increased gradually through the years, consistent with the inflationary increase in costs of services and in parallel with the rise in the budgets of city departments. This has been fueled by an increase in sales tax receipts (except the last two years) and property tax receipts. 

For example, in 2006, the library’s budget was less than $6 million. This year, it’s in excess of $10 million. While each city department has a master plan that includes a chapter on an ideal vision (which begins, “If money were no object…”), no city department receives funding for its visionary plan. The proposal on the table assumes that the library — and only the library — should receive funding at the ideal visionary level, at the increased expense to taxpayers.

To its credit, the Boulder Public Library received the Colorado Library of the Year award a few years ago. It is recognized both locally and across the state as one of the best libraries around. As with any municipal service, we can always do better. But taxpayers need to ask themselves, at what cost?

In the end, the taxpayers will receive the level of service they demand by deciding how much of their tax dollars should be dedicated to the library. Boulder taxpayers have supported the library for over 100 years; if other communities want a new library facility, perhaps funds should be collected in those communities for a few years to support that facility.

Finally, there will be several competing tax measures on the 2022 ballot, including a renewal and extension (and, for some taxpayers, increase) of the city’s two climate taxes and the possibility that the county and state will have tax measures before the voters as well. 

With families and businesses still struggling to recover from the pandemic and economic downturn, and with all of the competing services that need more stable funding, this year is not a good time to ask for a such a large, new library tax.

— Scott E. Malan, Boulder

Everyone loves libraries. But who uses them?

Let’s explore this odd dichotomy in order to understand the proposed new Library District.

Libraries have long been a signifier of civilization. This is especially true here in the West, where the presence of a big, stately library building meant the town had finally outgrown its frontier past.

And yet you are certainly reading this online, not in a library, or even in a printed newspaper.

Nationwide, library building usage dropped 31% from 2010 to 2018. In a report on the public library service in the U.S., the author states, “In most libraries under current arrangements, it would be many times cheaper to give a patron the money to buy an e-book than to license a copy from the library.”

So why is a $19.5 million dollar tax being proposed?  

Actually, I’m not sure. I think a big part of it is simply that old image: The stately building means we are cultured, we are educated, we are good people.

Proponents note that the library budget was cut by the city. It’s been a battle for decades, which is a hardship for library patrons.  

I agree and am sympathetic.  Solution: Ask the city to restore the budget. If they don’t, what is the reason why? If we all want it, they’ll do it.  Prioritization of city services is a normal process; forming a new district is an end-run around a healthy process.

I am of the strong opinion that everyone needs access to information; basic democracy is being threatened by ridiculous mis-information. How are science, good data and facts about our world provided? We get it online. Only then can it be current and nimble enough to keep up with today’s pace. 

Books are great and will always be here (even if I’m skeptical about why we cut down trees in order to disseminate thoughts and ideas). As one lover of libraries wrote, “Libraries are primarily places of storage.” I don’t think it’s timely nor environmentally helpful to get in a car to go visit our information.

Lower-income earners may have greater need for libraries because they may not have the resources at home (if they have one) to get online. Ironically, an important function of libraries now are their free computer terminals. Providing online access to everyone is an excellent service, and it’s great that libraries have shifted to providing it. Rather than a new Library District, we could address that problem directly by ensuring computer access at our existing facilities. And we could expand free WiFi in the city, which is currently only available on the CU campus and along Pearl Street (thank you, Google).

However, none of the 10 services proposed by the library district mention online access.  

The real question here is not buildings with objects stored in them — it is providing access to information for everyone. Let’s not conflate buildings with information. I am all in on providing access to information, and support restoring the library budget rather than creating another organization with another tax.

Buzz Burrell is a board member with Open Boulder. The opinions expressed here are entirely his own and do not reflect those of any organization, political or otherwise.

Library Opinion

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