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You Tell Us: Save Oakland’s libraries

on June 20, 2011

On Tuesday the City Council will be discussing a proposal to close 13 branch libraries, keep the remaining 4 open only 3 days a week, and closing other special rooms and services offered by the library system. (More details can be found on

As a resident of Oakland and parent of two small children who visit the Temescal branch weekly, I am outraged at this drastic proposal. Public libraries are part of the foundation of our democracy and represent some of our highest social ideals — equality, knowledge, and community. It is so easy in these challenging economic times to target the poor and politically unconnected, and this is an egregious example of that kind of thinking. What is happening to American society? Where are all of the wealthy who used to support these kinds of institutions for the public good?

Our Temescal branch was originally built as one of the Carnegie libraries of California: He supported branches that brought books to closer to where the people lived. Our family can walk to our Temescal library, enjoying fresh air and sunshine while being eco-friendly as well. Centralizing and consolidating makes sense to a point, but not to the extreme of closing down libraries.

What does it say to a child to walk by a shuttered public library, perhaps covered with graffiti, boarded up and unused? That society doesn’t care about knowledge and learning? That big paychecks for the few, the well-connected, is more important than helping children, immigrants, and those with literacy challenges to read, write and speak in English and other languages? That books, magazines, videos and computers — key media for having social literacy and connectivity — are only for the affluent?

What does it say about a city of Oakland’s size to have only four libraries left? What does it say to propose closing the Oakland History Room and the African-American Museum and Library? Does it say to the world that our history is not worth preserving and sharing?

The African-American Museum & Library’s mission is stated as being “dedicated to discover, preserve, interpret and share the historical and cultural experiences of African Americans in California and the West for present and future generations.” It is imperative that we consider the impact of these decisions not just now, not just six months or a year from now, but 10, 20, 30 years from now. What will be our legacy as residents of Oakland, of the Bay Area, of California, of the United States of America?

Karen Witham lives in North Oakland. Her two children are big fans of library story times and the magic of bringing home new books to read every week. She has benefitted from school, public, and university libraries her whole life and has previously worked at the Florida State University Libraries.


You Tell Us is Oakland North’s community Op-Ed page, featuring opinion pieces submitted by readers on Oakland-related topics. Have something to say? Send essays of 500-1,000 words to We’d love to hear from you!

All essays reflect the opinions of their authors, and not of the Oakland North staff or the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Oakland North reserves the right to edit submissions for length, clarity and spelling/grammar. You Tell Us submissions must be written in civil and non-offensive language. We do not publish hate speech, libelous material, unsubstantiated allegations or rumors, or personal attacks on individuals or groups.



  1. Mr Freely on June 20, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Okay, so where is the money? Where else can we cut city costs or expand city revenue?

    • Ivan Silva on June 21, 2011 at 9:16 pm

      the libraries take less than 2% of general budget. what about police and fire which take more than 60% of budget and contribute much less or nothing to their pensions?
      maybe you’ll reply police and fire are more important. but i’ll remind you that libraries, as we know them, were invented by two founding fathers: benjamin franklin and thomas jefferson. i’ll let you do the research and figure out why did they think these institutions important for the continued health of the republic.

  2. Teresa Goodwin on June 20, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    I agree that shuttering the libraries is really unfortunate although I am not sure what we are teaching our community when our government operates at a loss.

  3. Dr. Wallace F. Witham on June 20, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    I am a retired history teacher of 44 years and currently am writing my family’s genealogy in – of all places – a library. I am saddened by Oakland’s anti-intellectual bias and actions. My daughter was raised to do the right thing so she did with this letter of protest. POWER TO THE PEOPLE!!!

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