Grace Carroll is the kind of girl you’d trust for a scoop on the San Diego scene. She’s pretty, blonde, smart. She tends bar in one of La Jolla’s hottest restaurants, where the clientele isn’t much older than the twentysomething chef, who may have been the first here to foist celery foam on culinary early-adopters.
“I can’t believe you haven’t been.” Carroll’s voice lowers to conspiracy level as she pours our drinks. “The space is totally amazing. Sometimes I go just to hang out.”
This insider tip we get with our sauvignon blanc is not about a club, microbrew pub, or boutique. It’s a library. The Mission Valley Branch of the San Diego Public Library.
Last year more than half of all Americans visited a library at least once, according to a new report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. But the real kicker is this: the age group most likely to use a library is none other than Carroll’s tech-savvy, wired-from-the-womb Generation Y (18 to 30 years old).
An informal survey of San Diego State University undergraduates in Katie Hughes’s writing and composition classes offers a variety of nonacademic ways Gen Y students use libraries: from sleeping to playing computer games, from checking out Oprah-recommended novels for “recreational reading” to researching databases for music. One student enthuses, “It seems easier to meet girls at the library than at frat parties!” And another, “When I go to the library to study, ‘cruising’ is always expected.”
Out at Chili’s for lunch, I spot a guy who looks like a skater, Howard Dunson, 25, reading a newspaper at the bar. I ask him about libraries. He answers that reading and browsing city libraries — Linda Vista and Mission Valley — are “hobbies” of his; librarygoing is his “leisure.” An older sister turned him on to libraries when they were kids. “Reading keeps you on track,” Dunson says. “I look for what catches my eye. Other languages. Math. A book on car engines. Last time I was there, I picked up a book on the human brain and learned a bunch on it that’s cool.”
Any doubt that Gen Y is the cohort careening Miss Daisy’s bookmobile down the information superhighway is dispelled when I check out new libraries across the county, specifically the one in Encinitas, which opened in February. Getting this library built was a community soap opera: on the city books for ten years, construction costs double original budget, fractious city council meetings, revenue juggling, bloggers who said it wasn’t green enough.
But finished, this library is worth a road trip.
Sunken reading lounge. Wi-Fi sun terrace. Glassed-in meeting rooms with views of the Pacific. Staggered computers designed for privacy; no ruined sightlines. Wii entertainment systems. Espresso cart. Used-book shop worthy of a Berkeley bibliophile.
Public library staffs are getting makeovers too. Younger librarians are more “high-tech information sleuths” than traditional bookworms, declares U.S. News and World Report, which named “librarian” as one of the top careers of 2008.
You can spot the hipsters behind the checkout desks. Chances are they’re working on or got their graduate degree online from San José State, which has the largest library and information science program in the world. The program relies almost exclusively on distance learning, attracting 2200 online students from 12 different countries.
“There’s a more relaxed feeling in libraries now,” says Cathy Straitiff, a 28-year veteran school librarian and the driving force behind San Dieguito Academy’s new media center/library, the most popular gathering place on campus. “Librarians are being taught to make a friendly place and not shh-shh-shh.”
Here in the City of San Diego, there’s a definite library scene. In the last six years, three cruiseworthy branch libraries opened — in Mission Valley, Serra Mesa, and UTC — while ground was broken for a fourth in Logan Heights, to be six times larger than the old library, currently one of the city’s smallest at 3967 square feet. The new two-story branch will feature a computer lab with 35 computers for classes or students, 31 public-access computers, “Centro Cultural” community galleria/exhibit area, a preschooler learning center, and the city’s largest Spanish-language film, book, and music collections.
The mayor’s office claims that last year more than six million individuals visited city libraries. Twenty-seven percent of these visitors (1.6 million) went high-speed via library computers. A thousand San Diegans learned to read or read in English courtesy of the library’s free literacy program, READ/San Diego. And last year, all 1.3 million of us official San Diegans, including Mayor Sanders, rapper Lil’ Wayne, and the San Diego Chargers, were invited to read the same book when the library inaugurated a citywide book club, One Book, One San Diego.
San Diego’s current library budget is $38,362,037. In the proposed budget for fiscal year 2009, which begins July 1, it drops to $35,315,605. That’s roughly 3 percent of the City’s general fund, the bulk of which (61 percent) is derived from property, sales, and hotel occupancy taxes. There is little state or federal assistance for public libraries.
Of the City pie, the Library Department scores less than half the funding that Park and Rec gets.
Which comes down to this: per capita, the City spends about $28.95 per San Diegan on libraries, the same level of munificent library spending found in Americus, Kansas, or Aztec, New Mexico. (In comparison, the City of Carlsbad spends almost $100 per citizen on libraries; San Francisco, $72.81.)
The 2008 budget stated that there were no library capital improvements (remodeling, new construction) scheduled in San Diego this past fiscal year because of “the city’s inability to enter the public bond market.” However, funding for the new Logan Heights Branch Library comes from “a $5.25 million state library grant, with additional support from the First 5 Commission of San Diego County, developer fees, and federal funding,” according to “Check Us Out,” an official publication of the San Diego Public Library and its foundation.
Overall, not bad for a nonessential services department in a city struggling to stay solvent in a state whose public libraries rank 44th nationwide.