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This space has been used recently to pitch a number of bold ideas about the evolving role of libraries in our communities. Unfortunately, the readers of an online-only news outlet with a highly self-selecting audience have mostly overlooked the vital civic impact of libraries for those who need them most. I’ll go one step further: Libraries are a key ingredient to reclaiming the American Dream.
In the last several years, we’ve seen millions of Americans unexpectedly out of a job, out of their homes and disconnected from the lives they’ve built. In San Diego County, three out of 10 households can’t afford basic living expenses, let alone cell phones, personal computers or internet access. But through their local library they can reach job listings and career training programs to help them get back to work, as well as information about government assistance programs and clearinghouses that help people navigate the legal maze of foreclosure, bankruptcy, unemployment, health care and a constantly changing tax code.
And our economy needs the help. A recent study found that available San Diego jobs are going unfilled because local workers lack the necessary training. Combined with an ongoing unemployment crisis and perpetual questions about education funding, it’s as important as ever that we protect the few places that can provide stable resources to all. Simply put, libraries provide a pathway out of poverty.
Previous commentaries have taken for granted that there is now widespread access to the internet, but dramatic barriers still exist. Tens of millions of Americans still have no access to broadband, which an increasing portion of the internet requires.
Plus, it’s African-American and Latino communities that are most likely to be on the wrong side of the digital divide while also more likely to be living in poverty. Couple that with the fact that a third of San Diegans speak a language other than English at home and libraries become even more important. They ensure access to educational materials and the internet for those who are least likely to be reached by traditional means.
As school programs are cut and parents’ schedules are stretched further and further, we need more than Wi-Fi in coffee houses: We need civic tools to help our children compete for 21st-century jobs.
As college tuition rates increase at every level, our community needs all the public informational resources we can get.
As home life is increasingly unstable and schools have fewer resources to fill that gap, we must provide safe and productive environments for those who are motivated to work hard but don’t have anywhere else to go.
As the internet-fueled media increasingly struggles to differentiate between fact and opinion, important and controversial, librarians are often crucial guides for people of all ages to become responsible consumers of information. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we’re more reliant by the day on our libraries and librarians to compensate for cutbacks elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the federal government is struggling with regulations that maintain net neutrality and ensure everyone equal access to information online. It’s naive to assume that the internet will remain a great leveling force for information. Instead, we face the very real possibility of a dramatic reduction of access to information. It’s easy to imagine that the long-term future of informational resources are electronic, which makes it all the more important to have libraries guarantee fair access to everyone, regardless of ability to pay. And more than ever, it’s incumbent upon local government to be proactive in ensuring the open and widespread access to information that libraries provide.
Libraries do not simply provide a laundry list of informational services. They anchor our communities and serve as crucial tools for our neighbors to keep up and improve their lives as that success slips further out of reach by the day. This is not the time to relegate libraries to history or seize on budget challenges to turn a basic civic service into a subsidized, private enterprise.
Rather, it’s an opportunity to reinvest in one of our most effective tools for reaching our neighbors that are being left behind. Not out of some sense of moral generosity, but because a rising tide lifts all boats. We owe to those who are motivated to succeed every opportunity to go as high as possible, not roadblocks to challenge commitment. While so many other opportunities are disappearing, we must commit to maintaining a fundamental baseline for our communities.
Surely, our nation’s fundamental promise is to provide each other the opportunity to succeed and the respect to make of that opportunity whatever we choose. But the dramatic volatility of recent years has left Americans struggling with the basics, struggling just for that opportunity. It should serve to reinforce, not undermine, our commitment to ensuring access to our most basic tools for success — not with outsourcing or cuts, but with a stronger presence in our neighborhoods that affords everyone a path to contribute more.
Lucas O’Connor is a political consultant and co-founder of TwoCathedrals.com. He lives in Golden Hill.