When the time comes for Pablo Montoya to make one of his four weekly trips to the Santa Ana Public Library, he has the choice of an hour-and-a-half walk, 30 minutes on the bus, or a 40-minute bike ride.

He usually chooses the bike.

“It’s good for my health,” said the 20-year-old who lives in west Santa Ana near the border with Garden Grove. “[But] sometimes I am scared, especially on First Street – there are no bike lanes. I’ve almost had three accidents.”

Montoya’s dilemma is just one consequence of the sorry state of library funding in Santa Ana.

Santa Ana is the 11th largest city in the state, and yet to serve its population of 330,920, there is just one main library and a small branch. By comparison, Anaheim has eight branches to serve its population of 343,793.

The disparity is even worse when resources are calculated on a per-capita basis. Santa Ana spent $12.38 per resident on library services in 2012, which ranked in the bottom 15 percent of California’s 181 library systems, according to statewide data. Yorba Linda, meanwhile, spent $64.90 for every resident.

Oakland, another high population, high poverty city, spent more than four times as much per capita as Santa Ana. 

In terms of library space, Santa Ana ranks 178th, or third from the bottom, with 0.15 square feet per person. This equates to about the size of a small envelope. In Anaheim, there is almost three times more library space per person than in Santa Ana.

Public library funding should be a concern for any city like Santa Ana with a high percentage of young people from low-income households who have a much greater need for a public library than youth in more affluent communities, said California State Librarian Greg Lucas.

“Libraries are the most welcoming place for society’s most disenfranchised people,” said Lucas, who visited the Santa Ana Library earlier this year.

More than 80 percent of Santa Ana’s population speaks a language other than English, and roughly half speak English less than “very well.” 20.7 percent live below the poverty line and 11.6 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

According to a 2013 report by the Public Policy Institute of California, a third of Californians do not have access to Internet at home, with almost half of all Latinos having no home Internet.

“If I’m on the wrong side of the digital divide in 2004, I’m in a significantly worse place in 2014 because so much has been digitized over the last 10 years,” Lucas said. “When I go to libraries across the state, what I watch people doing on the computer is lifeline stuff. Because they don’t have the ability to look up the address for a job interview, to apply for the Affordable Care Act.”

Budget Battles

The library staff must try to bridge the divide on a budget that represents just 1.5 percent of the city’s $196.5 million 2014-2015 general fund. This compares to 54.3 percent that is dedicated to police.

“Trying to persuade decision makers that preventing crime has value – as opposed to reacting to it – is not so easy,” said Heather Folmar, Santa Ana’s library services manager.

Lucas points to a study by the San Francisco Library that argues that for every $1 the city spends on the public library, the public sees a return in the range of $1.40 to $3.34 on social costs saved down the road. 

“The number one determiner of a child’s success is the parent’s level of literacy. So afterschool and summer library programs are improving a person’s chance of academic and economic success after that,” said Lucas. “When cities look at their budget…it’s not the library versus public safety. More and more, it’s partnerships between libraries and public safety.”

Folmar and others understand that the library can’t be exempt from the budget affecting the whole city, but they say even in good years the funding for books, technology and staff wasn’t up to par. For example, it wasn’t until this month that the city made wireless internet available to the public in the library and at City Hall.

“Support from the city comes and goes – it’s like motherhood and apple pie, nobody’s against it, that’s un-American! It’s practically a crime to be against a library,” Folmar said. “But when it comes to choosing where you put your money.”

High-level city officials acknowledge the disparities and say the funding situation has improved along with the budget outlook over the past couple years.

City Manager David Cavazos pointed to recent budget increases of about $500,000 for books and materials, a youth civic engagement program and e-library services. There are plans to incorporate library services at a new recreation center opening in 2016.

“While one can say one has been waiting awhile, there’s a definite optimism that we’re speeding up the process,” said Gerardo Mouet, director of Parks and Recreation, which oversees the library

A Dedicated Staff

Mouet and others agree that the library’s saving grace has been a staff of unusually dedicated employees and volunteers, most of whom were born in Santa Ana and raised in the public library.

“The thing that we have to bargain with is trust. Everybody trusts the library,” Folmar said.

Most importantly, the staff has gained the trust of some of the city’s most at-risk youth.

“We have had a number of probation kids [volunteer] here,” Folmar said. “They do some dumb thing and get in trouble – but if you can catch them right there, right then, you can make such a difference.”

The staff reach these youth through TeenSpace, a mentoring program aimed at keeping underserved Santa Ana youth off the streets, in school and focused on college and career plans. For many of the youth involved, TeenSpace serves as the support network they may be missing from home.

“What we get here are what I call the invisible kids,” said Cheryl Eberly, principal librarian for Young Adult Services. “We get a lot of the siblings of the superstars, and the ones that are marginalized and in the middle, they’re invisible. The C student who, with a little bit of extra motivation and help, will shine.”

On any given afternoon, the basement of the main library, where TeenSpace is held, is full of teens studying, puttering around on computers and playing cards.

Raul Medina, 19, comes to TeenSpace almost every day. He says the supportive environment has helped him come out of his shell and stay on a positive path.

“We’re a perfect group of weirdos and outcasts – but that’s my kind of community,” Medina said. “It’s kept me occupied, from going to other things, kept me off the streets. They have stuff to do here every day. There might be just one thing to do, but at least that one thing keeps you occupied.”

Montoya, the west side resident with the long bicycle ride, counts himself among the grateful weirdos.

Growing up in a violent neighborhood and a tense home, Montoya often fled to the streets in search of some peace. For him, like many of the teens that join the mentoring program, the library became a crucial support network and a bridge into the real world.

“The library is a big part of my life. I grew up very secluded, very reserved,” Montoya said. “They helped me join the real world. Some of my best friends are at the library.”

In many respects, Montoya’s story mirrors that of Manny Escamilla, who along with Eberly, is the heart and soul of the library’s youth program.

Escamilla, who grew up in a violent Santa Ana neighborhood, began volunteering when he was 18, and nine years later, now wears many hats as the library’s local history archivist and TeenSpace coordinator.

A UC Berkeley graduate who is now working on a Master’s of library science at UCLA, Escamilla says the library gave him crucial professional development support.

“Cheryl used to sell men’s suits in college, so she taught a generation of us how to dress. She helped me find a suit, tie a tie,” he said.

Escamilla is among several of the professional staff who began as volunteers in high school, returned to work part-time in college, and were later encouraged to get a Master’s degree in Library Science.

“We’re the bridge for the young kid who wants to go to college and has no idea what it means because their parents have a fifth, sixth grade education. Then they see someone like Manny who takes the extra time to say, ‘I did it too, I’m like you guys,’” Eberly said.

Writing Grants as Often as Shelving Books

One reality that Eberly and Escamilla didn’t bargain for is how much of their time would be spent writing grants to make up for the budget shortfalls.

For example, a federal grant funds the library’s free tutoring program, which serves up to 3,000 children. Many parents, especially those with low education levels or who don’t speak English, rely on the library tutors to keep their children on track in school.

And this year, Eberly secured grant money to fund 30 local internships.

“I think to myself, I need to get grants to get staff to help these kids. Then I need to find grants to create jobs, so these kids can have work experience,” she said. “They are volunteers and they want to go to school, but they kind of live in the library.”

Folmar fears that, as the competition for federal grants grows, the library won’t be able to keep funding these programs. She says relying on grant funding also means staff must devote more of their time to writing grant applications and keeping up with reporting requirements.

Mouet, the department director, said that if the library failed to secure grant money for the tutoring program, he would recommend that the city fund the program.

And it is getting help from other sources. After a donation of 19 laptops from Google, Santa Ana now has 116 public computers available through its main library and three computer labs, although that is still half the number available in the Anaheim library system.

Moreover, since the library merged with the Parks and Recreation department in 2009, staff say Mouet has been an advocate for library funding and opened up department resources and facilities to library services. For example, two small computer labs have opened at the Garfield and Jerome community centers.

While these are all positive improvements, Folmar said the library still needs another full-service branch. The library’s one other crowded location, the Newhope Learning Center, is limited to a computer lab, a small TeenSpace program and young adult and children’s books for checkout.

Escamilla says investing in a public library is about more than paying for facilities and books.

“There’s a certain type of person to work in an urban public library environment. Every day you’re here, you interact with someone who really does need help,” he said. “It’s not just about the services and programs – we’re dealing with individual people. It’s really cost intensive up front, but it pays for itself over time.”

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