February 16, 2018

San Jose Libraries Funding Set for 25 Years

Near the heart of a revitalized tech boom in Silicon Valley, San Jose, CA, is growing rapidly, topping one million residents this year. The San Jose Public Library (SJPL) will have plenty of concerns about how best to serve those new users in coming years. How to fund those efforts, though, won’t be among them. Earlier this month, San Jose voters passed a continuation of the Library Parcel Tax (LPT), which helps to fund SJPL operations, with an astonishing 81 percent of voters in favor.

SJPL is primarily paid for out of San Jose’s General Fund, but those amounts can waver from year to year. This has been all too apparent in recent years, as budget cuts delayed the opening of new branches and forced existing libraries to make significant cuts to service hours. The LPT, which provides about 25 percent of SJPL’s annual budget, is especially crucial when budget cuts threaten as it provides a backstop for years when other resources are hard to come by. Last year, funds from the LPT were “essential” in minimizing the impact of cuts to the library’s budget from the General Fund,  SJPL director Jill Bourne told LJ.

Initially passed in 2004, the LPT was set to expire in just over a year; it would have ended on June 30, 2015. With just a year left, SJPL’s funding situation didn’t feel too stable, so the SJPL and its partners worked to bring a continuation to the ballot box that would ensure stable funding for the foreseeable future, asking voters to approve a continuation of the current funding levels of $29.84 annually for a single family home, condo, or townhome. That would not expire until 2039, securing library funding at a steady, reliable rate for the next quarter century.

The long term continuation faced a high bar, needing the approval of 67 percent of voters to pass. In the weeks leading up to the vote, library staff and supporters were confident they had the votes they needed, said Bourne, but no one expected the final vote tally—an 81 percent landslide victory for the continuation.

“The results… demonstrate how the Capital of Silicon Valley loves its library system and wants to maintain the current level of library services available to San Jose residents, schoolchildren, and businesses,” SJPL spokesperson Steven Brewster said in a statement.

That 4-1 margin was more than just a victory worth popping champagne over when the votes were counted on June 3. It represented a huge vote of confidence in the library and its mission from San Jose voters, said SJPL director Jill Bourne.

“Eighty one percent sends a very strong message about how valued the library is in this community,” Bourne told LJ. “It’s a great place to build on.”

SJPL’s first priority is to take advantage of the newfound stability and invest in returning service hours to libraries that have had them cut in recent years. Once that’s done, Bourne said the library will take advantage of the momentum and goodwill demonstrated by the continuation vote and look to do more and better outreach to its growing population. That means SJPL will be doing more work outside of its physical buildings in the future, working to meet patrons where they live. The partnerships with local non-profit organizations, government agencies, and businesses that SJPL honed during its funding campaign will be key to that outreach.

“We’re able to grow in ways that people have wanted for a long time now,” said Bourne, who took the reins of the system just over a year ago. Whereas before, “we were trying to just keep the buildings running for a long time.”

Given the geography and economics of San Jose, a lot of that outreach and new programming will be in partnership with the tech industry. Online auction house eBay has already helped the library to revamp its summer reading program with a new interactive smartphone app that lets families manage multiple summer reading accounts from one device, a boon for families that have several kids but a single smartphone.

The library is also partnering with Tech Shop, a subscription-based hackserspace where users can gather to take advantage of tech gear they don’t have access to at home, to offer young library patrons free training sessions. Also in the works is a mobile Maker space concept that can travel to parts of San Jose where people have less easy library access, to help to connect them with the region’s tech industry.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.