San Jose libraries want funds to return to pre-pandemic service
Bala Rukku and his father look for different books in the foreign language section of the Evergreen Library in San Jose. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    San Jose’s budget process has begun, and libraries are hoping to get enough funding to return to pre-pandemic service levels.

    With an expected surplus this coming fiscal year and an easing of COVID restrictions, the San Jose Public Library Foundation sees it as an opportunity to return to normalcy—at least in terms of budget and operations. The foundation is a nonprofit that raises money to support city libraries.

    The foundation is asking for $2 million, which Executive Director Dawn Coppin said was the amount cut from the library budget during the pandemic.

    “As is so often the case, these cuts in service place a heavier burden on the vulnerable, high-need communities that rely on libraries the most,” Coppin said in a statement.

    Dawn Coppin, executive director of the San Jose Library Foundation, speaks at the West Valley Branch Library on March 10 about her $2 million request to staff libraries at pre-pandemic levels. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    Like almost everything else, local libraries took a hit when COVID-19 struck and closed in-person services for about a year. When they slowly started reopening in spring 2021, hours and services were limited because of financial restraints. The city imposed a hiring freeze and full operating hours have yet to resume. About a third of library workers were reassigned to work at San Jose’s Emergency Operations Center during the pandemic, according to the foundation.

    On Thursday morning, San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones joined Coppin and residents at a news conference in front of the West Valley Branch Library. Jones said funding for libraries is near and dear to his heart, as his mother was a librarian. He’s cautiously optimistic about getting the $2 million.

    “It’s going to be a challenge. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s a big ask,” Jones told San José Spotlight. “San Jose is probably one of the most underfunded, understaffed cities in the country. So every budget cycle is always a challenge to provide funding for all of our priorities and key initiatives.”

    He said because of this, parks and libraries get the short end of the stick. But Coppin said the $2 million ask is a mere “rounding error” compared to the more than $1 billion the city can work with.

    “In the mayor’s March 7 budget message, he emphasized ways to build a strong, resilient and equitable system,” Coppin said. “We contend that a simple and extraordinarily cost effective way of doing that is to restore the library’s staffing and operating hours to pre-pandemic levels.”

    San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones speaks in support of the $2 million request for library staffing. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    Staffing up

    City Librarian Jill Bourne said her department also made a request for roughly $2 million to return staffing to pre-pandemic levels—unrelated to the call to action by the library foundation.

    “Restoring our hours and the programs that we provided prior to the pandemic are our No. 1 priority,” Bourne told San José Spotlight. “Libraries aren’t just buildings with books in them. When they’re open, they need staff to be able not only to help people find the resources, but to hold all of the programs that we have from citizenship to digital literacy.”

    She said some of the staffing lost was “problematic” because it impacted programs such as teaching English as a second language and others related to child care. Another critical aspect is boosting security at local libraries—San Jose’s 24 library branches share a single security guard. The $2 million would fund roughly 30 positions, some of which are part-time.

    Bourne said among a plethora of budget requests, other priorities include the continuation of SJ Learns and SJ Access. SJ Learns is an after school library program that helps students with their school work. The cost is about $500,000. SJ Access is a pandemic-era program that provides internet hotspots, computers and iPads to those in the digital divide. That ask is closer to $2.5 million, Bourne said.

    “But these numbers can change as we go through the budget process,” Bourne said.

    The budget process is a lengthy one. At the City Council meeting on March 15, the mayor will introduce his priorities and other councilmembers and city departments will share their requests. The city manager then drafts a budget proposal, set to come back before council in May. City leaders will finalize the budget by June.

    Local father Salomon Varela with his two children, 11-year-old Mateo and 8-year-old Victoria, in front of the Evergreen Branch Library with the books they borrowed. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    Library patron Salomon Varela said he hopes the city libraries get even more than $2 million.

    “Libraries should absolutely be a priority for the city,” Varela told San José Spotlight. “I use it all the time with the kids. We use it as a safe space, as a place for them to grow and learn. These are places that really are becoming fewer and far between today.”

    Varela said he and his two kids, 11-year old Mateo and 8-year-old Victoria, relied on the library for new books and a change of scenery from the mundane nature of pandemic life—especially as other children’s activities have been slow to return.

    San Jose resident and library patron Bala Rukku said he understands the city has a host of priorities, but emphasized libraries are an essential gathering space, so he hopes to see additional funding.

    He shared it’s not only a fitting resource for his middle and high school children, but also his father who frequents the library to borrow books in Hindi.

    “My family comes looking for some international literature and interesting magazines and books and stuff,” Rukku told San José Spotlight. “It gives opportunity for people to come in and try out new things and gives me the flexibility to explore.”

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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