Save Branch Libraries in Berkeley

Support Measure FF: Cultivating Literacy and Empowering Citizens With Valuable Knowledge

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During hard times, people turn to the library. They can't as easily afford books, DVDs, or music. There's less money to spend on flashier forms of entertainment and more expensive family outings. This is as true in Berkeley as anywhere else. Last year the library reported a nearly 10 percent increase in its number of visitors. More than a million and a half items were in circulation. Even during hard times, the library is-or ought to be-a clean, welcoming and safe place, a haven of peace and learning, a fundamental democratic point of access to the technologies of knowledge that are the only hope of ordinary people trying to stay afloat and informed and connected amid times of disorder, hardship and confusion.

On Nov. 4, Berkeley voters will be asked to approve Measure FF, which would provide up to $26 million to renovate, expand, and make seismic and access improvements to four of the city's branch libraries. Measure FF would on average over the 30-year life of the bond add about $27 per year in increased taxes on a home assessed at $330,000.

To some people, that may not sound like an unduly onerous burden, but $27 is $27. I know it's tough to ask people to foot that kind of a bill during hard times. But it's precisely during times like these that the value-a value not measurable solely in terms of dollars-of our public library system is greatest.

The hidden, long-term cost of a vote against improving our branch libraries, against the role they play in fostering literacy, informing and empowering citizens, creating a safe zone for intellectual and artistic exploration, and for strengthening the social fabric of a city, is far higher than a $27.

Thanks to the generosity and foresight of the people of Berkeley, we enjoy the use and the beauty of our downtown Central Library. But our neighborhoods are the life of our city, and the branch libraries stand at the heart of our neighborhoods. Children and parents, seniors and teenagers, students working on school projects, independent researchers seeking to explain the world in strange and unheard-of ways, ardent readers of every age and taste and variety: Berkeley boasts a populace that is pound-for-pound one of the nation's most literate, engaged, thoughtful, passionate (at times even, let's be honest, obsessive) and intellectually curious, and our public libraries are crucial to our collective enterprise. Together they receive more than 800,000 visits a year. I know that my children and I could not imagine life in our neighborhood without the Claremont Branch.

And yet as with so many of things we love and treasure in the world without quite realizing how deeply, we have neglected our branch libraries. They are old, outdated, in some cases unsafe. They don't offer complete access under ADA. Most of them have not been renovated since the 1970s. Their interiors are overcrowded and tired, and they have suffered the thousand natural shocks that Bay Area structures are heir to. The world of information has in many ways changed completely over the last 30 years, and our branch libraries need to reflect those changes, in their structure and their function; they need to be prepared to accommodate the unimaginable new world of information that is around us being born. And they need to do all that in a way that is both consistent with sustainable environmental practice and with the individual branches own rich architectural history.

Measure FF will do all that. It will also, in strengthening our library system serve as a bold, even a defiant gesture in these hard times, when so much effort and so many billions are expended every day in taking the control of and access to information out of the hands of ordinary people. It will serve as the expression of our belief in our kids and their future, in the kind of world that we intend to leave them. Let's all look beyond the short-term, and vote yes on Measure FF.


Michael Chabon is a Berkeley resident and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. Reply to [email protected]



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