Growing up, 23-year-old UCSC senior Emmanuel Garcia remembers days when he ate only one square meal.
The son of two Mexican immigrants who came to the United States to provide their children more opportunity, Garcia attended a resource-strapped elementary school in a poor area of San Diego. The school rented space from a Baptist church and hosted science class in a decrepit house built at the turn of the century.
His parents, he says, did not emphasize the importance of education. And although Garcia took academics seriously, his school didn’t have a cutting-edge computer lab, and his parents, he says, were too poor to afford computers or a personal collection of books. The local public library became his refuge and a tool of his educational advancement.
“Growing up, I used the library for most of my school work,” Garcia says. “Even up to high school, I printed out my essays there, I would research my papers there and check out my books there.”
In February, Mayor Cynthia Mathews, an avid library supporter, approached the UCSC College Democrats about the need for the community to fund a major facilities overhaul for the library system, and Garcia, a member of the club, asked Mathews if he could join the campaign for Measure S, which heads to the ballots on June 7.
“Libraries have had a positive impact in my life in helping my education greatly,” says Garcia, who has been working on the campaign and wants to go to law school. “I found that I had almost a responsibility and a duty to make sure that other people have the same resources that I had.”
The measure, which has no formal opposition, asks Santa Cruz County property owners to approve a flat tax of nearly $49.50 per year to provide approximately $67 million to the library system for critical repairs and upgrades to the system.
“We have 10 branches and each of the branches need repairs to a greater or lesser extent,” says Interim Library Director Janis O’Driscoll.
System leaders performed their most recent renovation beginning in 2010, when it transformed a former Scotts Valley roller rink into a library, but the leaking roof endangered both the branch’s book collection and the library’s computer equipment, O’Driscoll says. The Capitola branch has three temporary classrooms that were installed 17 years ago. The Felton branch is located in a ramshackle former church built in the 19th century, and the walls don’t meet flush anymore. The bond measure, which needs two-thirds voter approval to pass, would fund new facilities for both Capitola and Felton.
The downtown Santa Cruz branch, the flagship of the system, requires a comprehensive renovation, O’Driscoll says, as the plumbing is substandard and the building is heated by an ancient boiler that is the only one of its kind remaining in California, meaning parts have to be specially manufactured when things break down, which is often.
But it’s not simply maintenance, says Mathews, who wants the system to upgrade its broadband and wiring to keep up with the demands of the modern-day library user. “Libraries are just used differently than they used to be,” says Mathews, who is working on the Say Yes to Measure S campaign.
Libraries in general have moved beyond the 19th-century model of the Dewey decimal system, stern librarians insisting on quiet and the smell of deteriorating glue lingering among the catacombs of encyclopedias.
In the Internet-dominated 21st century, one of the library’s important roles, Mathews says, is providing universal access to the World Wide Web—particularly for those who cannot afford computers or monthly payments for broadband access, just as Garcia couldn’t as a child.
“We need to be able to rewire the branches to take advantage of the new technology,” Mathews says. “We want to be able to provide the people who use the Internet with faster speeds and greater capacity.”
O’Driscoll says the library continues to keep pace with the times in terms of its offerings, providing access to e-books, audio books, music, DVDs, and podcasts. There is even a database of local musicians that library members can audio-stream on the library’s website.
Santa Cruz Public Libraries, which announced new executive director Susan Nemitz this month, is busier than ever. Circulation increased 4.5 percent from fiscal year 2013-14 to 2014-15, O’Driscoll says. Additionally, about 113,000 people checked something out at one of the branches during March 2016—more than half of the 219,000 people that comprise the library service area. Fifty-five percent of the people who live in the service area own library cards, O’Driscoll says, which shows that the library has adapted and kept pace with demand.
That doesn’t include Watsonville, which has its own branch, run separately from the 10-branch system in the rest of the county. The residents of Watsonville would not be voting on the bond or paying for it should the measure pass.
Measure S will not only fix roofs and finance new construction, it will also pay for upgrades to make branches more compatible with a changing mission that focuses on making new media more readily available to all segments of the population.
The measure stipulates that bond money cannot be spent on computers or other related equipment, but must be restricted to capital improvements that address supportive infrastructure, such as better wiring and more open and inviting building formats. The campaign has racked up a litany of endorsements from elected officials, educators, organizations, and prominent community members.
Supporters are taking nothing for granted, particularly as the ballot is crowded with other public entities looking for tax approvals to secure funding boosts. “Anytime you do a measure, at least 20 percent of the voters will vote against it just because it’s a tax,” Mathews says. “So we have a really narrow margin. But the tax is a modest amount and it’s a flat amount.”
Unlike some bond measures, Measure S would keep the amount at $49.50 per year and will end after a 30-year period.
“This bond measure was put together after a careful study of the actual needs of the library system,” Mathews says.
Those needs, Garcia says, include providing 21st century services to those who can’t afford them. “Access to computer resources is something needed in the 21st century,” he explains. “It’s not so much a luxury, it’s a necessity. And libraries are democratic institutions. Anyone can go in there, anyone can access the materials.”
Garcia credits libraries with helping him make it this far—to the precipice of graduating from a major public university with a degree in political science and legal studies. He wants to ensure that others will not be denied similar opportunities.
“I feel indebted to future generations because I was given a wonderful opportunity to use the resources at the library,” he says. “I’m grateful for what I have, but I want future generations not to have just what I have, but for their chances to grow.”