Op-ed: Libraries are essential to our recovery and resilience
Books at the Milpitas Library. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

If local government budgets truly reflect the values of the communities they serve, we believe San Jose’s budget should prioritize our public libraries.

As we continue to navigate an unpredictable pandemic, it is critical that the San Jose Public Library has the resources it needs to serve our most vulnerable neighbors and build a more equitable, educated and engaged community. Any reductions in library programs and services would only exacerbate the digital divide in our city, which existed before COVID-19 and will continue to persist after it—unless we invest in solutions now.

Our combined decades of experience as leaders in Silicon Valley’s education and technology ecosystems have taught us that libraries are an essential component of a healthy society. They offer a space for community members to meet and interact. They provide educational programs that benefit students of all ages, including homework clubs, digital literacy and other resources. And they help people find jobs through reliable access to the internet, career counseling and computer skills training.

The San Jose Public Library is the backbone of the city’s education and digital literacy strategy, which became even more vital during the pandemic as tens of thousands of our students and families struggled with distance learning, unemployment and financial hardship.

According to recent studies, approximately 95,000 San Jose residents lack reliable access to the internet, and at least 23,000 working-age adults have lost their jobs and lack the connectivity and/or computer skills to seek a new job, sign up for safety net services or continue their education.

The deficit is most pronounced in East San Jose, where Alum Rock Union Elementary School District serves a student population of which 81% are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, 78% identify as Hispanic or Latinx and nearly 40% are English learners. Without our public libraries, many of these students would not be able to access opportunities they need to thrive in their academic journeys.

SJ Access and other digital inclusion programs based at the library—such as Coding5K, Career Online High School, SJPL Works and the recently launched SJ Aspires—provide multilingual workshops, technology devices, dedicated staff and financial assistance to learners and families in the most underserved neighborhoods throughout our city.

Over the past year, SJ Access provided more than 15,000 mobile WiFi hotspots to students and library members, and a donation drive in partnership with the San Jose Public Library Foundation collected 687 laptops and other devices for families in need.

Meanwhile, the Coding5K Challenge moved entirely online as branches were forced to close due to shelter in place orders, with 4,478 youth as young as five years old participating in 248 coding courses and summer camps.

Additionally, the library’s Career Online High School program awarded diplomas and career certificates to 114 adult learners to help advance their education and earning power. Two hundred and twenty one individuals received career or business assistance from SJPL Works. And the SJ Aspires program provides counseling, mentorship and scholarships to nearly 700 San José high school students, including the entire ninth grade class at W.C. Overfelt High, where many Alum Rock Union Elementary School District students enroll after middle school.

These library programs—and many more—are essential to San Jose’s educational and economic recovery from COVID-19 and place us at the forefront of national efforts to improve digital literacy, equity and inclusion. Yet current city budget proposals still include cuts to library service hours.

We call on city leaders to fully fund our library in order to ensure an equity of opportunity for all of our residents.

Dr. Hilaria Bauer is superintendent of the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District. Erica Fensom sits on the San Jose Public Library Foundation Board of Directors.

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