Libraries, seniors, feel the bite of recession
on May 28, 2009
Several fat books stacked on Deborah Cunningham’s lap spilled over the edges of her wheelchair. As an aide wheeled her away, the dark-haired, elderly woman, a retired English professor in her mid-eighties, grasped them tightly. She is one of ten or eleven repeat customers at Mercy Retirement and Care Center that look forward to the monthly Bookmobile visits from the Oakland Library system.
The Bookmobile, a large, multicolored bus that traverses Oakland streets two days a week to visit under-served communities, is beneficial to residents at the center, according to Community Enrichment Director Steve Hardy.
“Most of our residents who like the Bookmobile are very frail and can’t go to the library themselves,” he said, as a few older patrons browsed the special large-print titles in the lobby. “This is a very valuable service.”
One that may disappear if Mayor Dellums’ proposed city budget is passed by the city council in the coming weeks. The Bookmobile, which delivers books to senior centers, child-care facilities, halfway houses and Oakland communities without access to a working library, represents one of many library cuts proposed in the city’s plan to close its $83 million deficit.
Clarice Lowlich, a white-haired woman who said she is 90 (and a half), browsed the titles and chose a book called ‘I Lost My Love in Baghdad.’ Lowlitch prefers current novels and non-fiction and was dismayed to hear about the proposed cuts. “That’s so unfortunate, because we cannot go out and get them – it’s such a distance,” she said. “And we are the people who have the time to read. It’s our way of keeping touch.”
Another woman in a walker stopped by to pick up a few Nora Roberts romances for a friend. “She likes romances, not mysteries. I love mysteries,” she said.
Out in the bus, which is painted with muted rainbow hues and black and white pictures of Oakland’s youth, another elderly woman, Jody, browsed and chatted with Henry, the driver who has been servicing the area since the mid seventies.
“You have to turn around to go down the steps now, remember Jody?” he cautioned as she slowly exited, books stuffed in the fabric pockets of her walker. Once she reached the ground, Henry handed her the walker, stepped down and gave her a big kiss on the cheek. They used to be colleagues; Jody is an ex-bookmobile librarian herself.
Along with parking the Bookmobile indefinitely, the city’s proposed budget cuts call for closing several smaller library branches for all but two to three days a week. Those affected include Temescal, Elmhurst, Lakeview, Golden Gate, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Melrose. Staff members would rotate from library to library. “In essence, we’ll be covering six branches with three sets of staff,” Gerry Garzon, associate director of the Oakland public library said.
Kathleen Hirooka, communications coordinator for the Oakland library system, said even without the new budget cuts, the effects of the economy have already been felt. “There’s been a hiring freeze, which has impacted us fairly severely,” she said, adding that due to the recession, layoffs elsewhere mean more people are using resources at the library to hunt for jobs.
But it is not just the library system that will suffer. Since the mayor released his proposed budget in early May, departments throughout the city have been asked to make 10 to 20 percent ‘across the board cuts’ according to the city’s budget fact sheet.
These cuts apply to essential services such as libraries, senior centers and police and fire services.
The general fund has the largest deficit and the library system represents 3 percent of the general fund, human services, 1 percent and public safety, which includes police and fire, 66 percent.
Library funding is somewhat protected by Measure Q, which provides a baseline amount of $9.1 million for the next budget cycle.
Mary Norton, director of the North Oakland Senior center, has felt the burn. She listed the adult education classes she was asked to cut this year: Sewing, Pattern making, Decorative arts and gifts, Knitting and Crocheting and Quilting Plus. “All very well attended,” she added.
She dealt with the cuts in early April by re-grouping classes, but not without a price.
“We’ve managed to keep these classes by a hodge-podge of things. We’ve lost qualified teachers,” she said. In an attempt to be creative about funding, the center started asking seniors to pay $5 a class. But this, too, was difficult. “These people are on low and fixed incomes. They don’t have any income for that,” Norton said wistfully.
While her center had 600 dues-paying members, Norton estimated that they serve 1000 repeat senior customers a month. Meals on Wheels, which delivers lunches to seniors at her center, has also been cut back. But Norton holds out hope that the federal stimulus money will kick in soon for the subsidized lunch programs. “We’re hoping and praying for an infusion,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for 11 years and this has never happened once before.”
Other programs that the city has been loathe to cut may sustain major losses as well. If Oakland doesn’t receive the federal COPS grant, up to 140 police officers may be laid off.
Even in these precarious times, however, the Bookmobile continues to run and people do what they have to, to keep servicing the community.
Henry Linzie, 58, who came out of retirement to start driving the bus again, is a prime example. He’s seen a few different incarnations over the years: the bright rainbow bus, the old green and white bread truck. Both were eventually rejected for the air-conditioned, sleek model that he sits behind the wheel of today.
Linzie talks slowly and his affection for the bookmobile is palpable. He beams when he describes the generations of children he’s seen benefit from the service. “They call me the book man,” he said. “I’m seeing people’s grandkids now, and [their grandparents] say, Hey, he was my bookman too!”
Linzie, who describes the bookmobile as his “first love” in a long career working for the library system, said that he enjoys the bonds he forms with people. The bus, he adds, fills many gaps in Oakland and serves communities who can’t get to a library easily.
Parents agree. Louise, an instructional assistant at the Jefferson Child Development Center has fond memories of the bookmobile from when her daughter was small. “A lot of kids’ parents can’t take them to the library, so the library comes to them,” she says. “My daughter grew up to be a great reader. I would hate to see it go.”
Inside the bus itself, in addition to shelves of children’s books, Spanish language books, current titles and science fiction, there are magazines and a reading corner. Patrons can request books by phone or by writing down titles on a list when the bus visits. The books are then delivered the next time it comes around.
“Coming out here and going to neighborhoods gives young and old generations a chance to utilize these books,” Linzie said. “I don’t know why they want to take it away. It would be a great loss for adults, kids and teenagers. Whoever goes on this book mobile comes off happy.”
Here are some links to local blog posts about saving Oakland’s libraries:
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