San Diego City Library Branches Grapple With Inequities

Consultants have found that the public library branches in the less affluent, southern parts of the city are smaller, receive less circulations and have lower numbers of overall visits. A new library funding plan may address the discrepancy.

(TNS) — Library branches in the southern and southeastern parts of San Diego, Calif., are typically smaller and lack space for events and meetings, compared to branches in the north and west parts of the city, creating long-term challenges for the city's library system.

Because of the disparities, branches in the north and west have higher circulation and a greater numbers of visits, while branches in the less affluent south lead the 36-branch system in the use of public computers.

Consultants crafting a new library master plan for the city say San Diego won't be able to achieve "library equity" unless it builds larger branches in southern communities or reconfigures those branches, potentially replacing bookshelves with public spaces.

While the consultants are only partially done with analyzing the city's libraries and the 7,500 responses to a recent community survey, they said this week that the library space disparity appears to be the No. 1 challenge facing San Diego.

They suggested San Diego consider following the lead of Dayton, Ohio and some other cities that prioritize branches in lower-income areas when it comes to library funding.

Mayor Todd Gloria announced Wednesday a proposal to prioritize city parks funding in that way. The new library master plan, which won't be presented to the City Council for several months, could do the same.

Instead of basing their analysis on the nine city council districts, the consultants broke the city up into six zones: northern, beach areas, downtown neighborhoods, eastern suburban, border and southeastern.

The per-capita square footage in library branches is 0.53 square feet in the border zone, 0.56 in southeastern, 0.57 in eastern suburban, 0.60 in beach areas, 0.61 in northern areas and 0.62 in downtown.

"When we start looking at the different zones, we start to see the inequities," said Jill Eyres, one of the consultants. "One of the things we find about bigger libraries is they offer more opportunities for families to come together and there is something for everyone."

While Eyres said formal recommendations won't be coming for several weeks or longer, she provided the San Diego Library Foundation with some preliminary ideas Wednesday.

"The recommendations are going to, at a high level, say this is the amount of space, at a minimum, that should be provided in each of these zones," she said.

The consultants plan to stress that smaller branches in the south should be replaced by larger branches that offer more services, said Eyres, rather than adding more tiny branches to even the square footages out.

Stats compiled by Eyres and fellow consultant Carson Block show how those differing square footages affect library usage.

In the north, where most of the city's large libraries have been built, circulation and attendance numbers are much higher. The five leading branches for circulation in 2019 were Rancho Bernardo, Carmel Valley, Mira Mesa, La Jolla and Rancho Penasquitos.

The five leading branches for attendance at events and programs, such as author talks and youth readings, were Carmel Valley, La Jolla, Rancho Penasquitos, Scripps Ranch and North University City.

In contrast, the five leading branches for use of public computers were Logan Heights, Skyline, Oak Park, City Heights and Mountain View.

Data from the community surveys show another challenge facing city libraries is technology.

About a quarter of those surveyed rated the quality of the city's wireless internet between 1 and 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, with only 12 percent rating the system a 10.

On overall technology, 12 percent said the library was either "poor," "unreliable" or "ineffective."

A related challenge is the sharp increase in the use of digital resources during the COVID-19 pandemic, including electronic books and wi-fi hotspots. While that was considered a success, the consultants say it will create more long-term demand for those relatively expensive services.

"Now almost everyone has the idea of what is possible," Block said.

Eyres said the consultants expect to soon complete their analysis of the community surveys and the results of 15 focus groups of minorities, immigrants, refugees, disabled people, seniors, formerly homeless people and other groups.

The consultants then plan to unveil some broader recommendations, gather more public feedback and write a draft master plan for the library system, she said.

(c)2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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