Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: The library’s unsteady future

From an economic perspective, 2008 and 2009 have been the most difficult years we’ve seen since the Great Depression, and 2010 is shaping up to be just as difficult. This period has certainly been the most challenging fiscal time the county has faced in more than 30 years.

San Luis Obispo County closed a $30 million budget gap this year, and the Board of Supervisors will wrestle with another budget gap of between $20 million and $30 million next year. In all departments, we have reduced staffing by more than 300 positions over the past two years, and there is more to come. Our organization has had to re-think the way we do business and seek new innovation, efficiencies and flexibility.

Not surprisingly, the library budget has also suffered a huge decline in revenues (about $1 million) due to state budget reductions and the depressed real estate market (property tax revenues account for 80 percent of library revenues). We don’t know how long the budget crisis will last, but one inevitable result is the necessity, for the time being, for reduced staff and reduced library hours.

In the midst of this financial turmoil, the county library system is striving to become more convenient, relevant and of enduring value to county residents. We have an active network of 15 branch libraries that have seen dramatic increases in use during the past year or so.

Some examples: branch library visitor counts are up 17 percent, books and materials loaned are up 6 percent, downloadable audiobook use is up 30 percent and library event and program attendance is up 42 percent. In the face of expanding need, we see increased volunteerism as one way to address growth without increasing revenue.

The library currently uses about 600 volunteers weekly, and Friends of the Library and foundation groups donate about $60,000 annually.

We are working with both groups, plus members of the general public, to ramp up both volunteerism and fundraising. We know we can do a better job and are eager to explore how. We want to build on what we are doing well now by integrating the best practices from other library systems in order to get the best volunteer and fundraising programs possible.

I will do everything I can as the library director to maintain our paid professional staff. They are the heart and soul of the organization, and their expertise is essential to our success. I have no intention of replacing paid staff with volunteers.

However, the challenges today are immense, and one of the solutions includes a strong, sustainable volunteer program working alongside paid staff to provide for future library improvements in facilities and services for the communities we serve. This sort of innovation is key to keeping our libraries at the cultural center of our communities.

I am happy at any time to answer questions you might have or to receive your ideas. This is your public library, and I would be happy to hear from you.

Brian A. Reynolds is the San Luis Obispo County Library System Director and can be reached at breynolds@co.slo.ca.us.