As a former library associate for the Kern County Library, I have conducted countless story times. Funny, but no Kern County supervisor ever showed up to one.
Now, the opportunity for any resident of Kern County to benefit from library service will be dramatically reduced, with 16 of our 24 library branches set to close indefinitely.
On June 30, the Board of Supervisors willfully ignored more than 120 public comments in opposition to reducing the library’s budget by 20 percent nearly as effectively as they ignore the library’s invaluable place in our community every other day of their lives. So I will tell this story the only way I know how: loudly and relentlessly until our leadership is forced to listen to and value our community voices.
For elected officials who manage money that is not theirs, our supervisors have developed quite a taste for telling us they know what’s best. In a memorandum to the June 30 agenda, they admonished that “major services impacts have been largely mitigated.” Supervisor Leticia Perez chastised those who had submitted unread and unheard public comments at the end of the meeting that gutting our libraries “is our reality, we have to accept it … as a matter of reality through no fault of our own.”
If Supervisor Perez is referring to the culpability of county citizens, many of whom are daily faced with the realities of poverty and illiteracy, she is absolutely correct. It is not the fault of Kern County citizens that we are facing budget deficits, and yet our Board of Supervisors expects the most marginalized Kern communities to bear the brunt of these cuts. Of 24 library branches, only eight will remain open to the public. Out of two bookmobiles that serve rural areas without libraries, a whopping zero will be staffed or in service. The fault is not ours, Supervisor Perez, but rather yours and the remaining board members, in not prioritizing the betterment of Kern County and reimagining how we structure where these vital funds are allocated.
Libraries enrich their community and empower people to attain resources and knowledge regardless of income or social status. Offering a myriad of free services and programs, libraries are a haven for parents who cannot afford summer camps and expensive extracurricular activities, for folks trying to attain citizenship, for people experiencing homelessness to rest and read and much more. Our library workers strive to connect with the people they serve as well as local organizations through partnerships and events that go beyond just books.
But even if libraries were solely book dens, in a county with one of the worst literacy rates, such a resource alone would be invaluable. And yet, the proposed budget for 2020-2021 seeks to gut what little has been left standing of the Kern County Library. Kern County must start actually investing in their community by ensuring libraries in unincorporated areas remain open and that bookmobiles are still staffed and running. More funds allocated to the library will mean more community resources, a more educated public, a better trained library workforce, increased library hours, to name just a few of the many benefits. Of course, with the inconvenience an empowered citizenry poses to our county leaders, it’s no wonder they would rather suppress opposition and quietly pass their abysmally unimaginative proposed budget.
As an institution, libraries must always adapt in order to stay relevant to their community. Kern County Library, with the proliferation of services, virtual events and e-resources that they offer in the midst of a pandemic, have absolutely proven they are up to the task. The Board of Supervisors must now prove that it is up to its task of responding to community criticism and input. It is past time for the Kern County Board of Supervisors to invest in its community.
And as for the citizens of Kern County, will we prove we are up to our duty of speaking up and out? On Aug. 3, the county will hold a public hearing on the budget. A story like ours, when told together, cannot help but be heard. Reach out to your supervisor, and we will write a better future for Kern County!
Ariel Dyer is a Bakersfield native, community events coordinator, performing musician and one-third of the local podcast "Not Your Final Girl."