Santa Barbara Public Library Raises Questions
Like many members of the community, when I heard that SBPL was leaving the Black Gold Library Cooperative, I had questions. What did this mean? And was it really the right direction for our community?
As the executive director of the nonprofit organization What is Love, working to end violence against women and girls through relationship education — specifically helping young people learn about healthy relationships — I’ve worked with Santa Barbara Public Library staff on many programs over the years, so I went straight to the source to ask what was going on. And staff were happy to explain the situation in detail.
Why did SBPL decide to leave Black Gold? SBPL staff had brought lots of ideas for improving the efficiency of services, particularly the sharing of physical library materials, over the years. The existing catalog system and mechanism for sharing materials had weaknesses. It worked well to provide access to specialty items that would only be used by a limited number of people, and older, out-of-print items that a library may have had at one point but were lost or damaged and no longer available at a local branch. But for the majority of new, in-demand items, the system of delivery and shipment was a labor-intensive process that just shipped items around unnecessarily. Splintering of new jurisdictions in Santa Barbara County, first with Goleta and now with Carpinteria, meant that books to these jurisdictions were passed between more hands, increasing workload and wait times.
Also, the library catalog has multiple entries for the same titles based on different editions, making it hard to find the record for items at a local branch. It was sometimes difficult to see what formats (print, ebook, digital audiobook, audiobook on CD, etc.) items were available in — the new system helps that! Giving individual libraries more control over their catalog makes finding items in the library easier (shelf locations can tell you where exactly items are located). Library staff also shared how this new system would allow for better statistics to help inform decisions about the collection. Better yet? This system would cost significantly less, leaving more room in the budget for books and programs.
My next question: why didn’t all the Black Gold libraries jump on this chance? And I didn’t get a good answer to that. Only after Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo decided to go to this system did the other Black Gold libraries vote to move to the same system. But they expected SBPL and SLO to pay their portion of the shared catalog, as well as their own newly signed individual contracts (after more than a year of indicating that was their plan and giving the other libraries the chance to make the switch together). SBPL staff explained that even though SBPL and SLO will be independent, it’s still possible to share materials — if the remaining libraries want to. SBPL and SLO have proposed to continue to do so.
The decisions made by the other Black Gold jurisdictions made even less sense when you looked at what they’d be losing when they effectively pushed out SBPL and SLO from the cooperative — the five remaining Black Gold jurisdictions’ print collection budgets combined just barely equal Santa Barbara’s investment and are only half as much as San Luis Obispo’s print collection budget. So it’s not surprising that historically, SBPL lends more than it borrows. SBPL staff shared their plan to ensure they’re able to continue to provide books — whether print or digital — to readers.
But as a community educator, I know that the value of SBPL is so much more than just books and have experienced firsthand the hard work and dedication of its staff in supporting its mission of literacy and community education. If you look at the expansion of services and the amazing variety of programming that the library has offered over the last several years, its impact is undeniable. The new Library on the Go van takes services to schools, senior centers, parks, and even the hubs that serve our homeless neighbors. The library’s Stay and Play program has brought early literacy services to hundreds of families. SBPL is the only library in the county to offer one-on-one adult literacy tutoring or workforce development programs helping job seekers find employment. Throughout the pandemic, SBPL has innovated to continue to provide access and services to the community. And these are just the tip of the iceberg.
This is a complicated situation. At the end of the day I’ve witnessed the thoughtful, intentional way the staff at SBPL approach their work. Change is hard. But I trust that SBPL is moving in the right direction.