WatchSonoma Watch

GUEST OPINION: County libraries should be protected


A committee is being formed to consider revising the joint powers agreement under which the Sonoma County Library System has operated since 1975. It is imperative to understand what changes are desired before the JPA is revised. The risk is that the changes could do irreparable harm — to the sharing of materials, to funding and to intellectual freedom.

Sue Struthers

David Sabsay, then library director, crafted a union of the libraries to provide cohesive, equal and accessible library service to all county residents. Prior to the JPA, the county library was under the Library Board of Trustees of the city of Santa Rosa. The JPA ensured local involvement through the creation of library advisory boards for the service areas of the branches.

The agreement created an independent library agency with minimal direct control by the Board of Supervisors. Each of the supervisors and the cities of Santa Rosa and Petaluma appoint a library commissioner, who serves without pay. The commission approves policies, expenditures, union contracts and the hiring and firing of the library director.

The Board of Supervisors approves the number of employees, their classification and wages and the budget. An annual report on the state of the library is mandated by the JPA.

The Sonoma County Library provides everyone in the county with access to the entire collection. Materials are moved freely throughout the system in response to customer demand. The materials are in one pool from which all may draw. The branch collections are reflective of their communities, but they are used by all county residents.

The library’s budget is currently separate from the control of county administrators. The funds, 2.5 percent of 1 percent of the property tax, are library specific and cannot be siphoned off to fill potholes or pay for other county services.

Comparing other library systems in California should be evidence of the wisdom of this. All government agencies in the state are affected by the economic downturn. Closed days for libraries are widespread, but many libraries have also severely cut staff, materials and budgets, and some are charging fees for services. Some charge for cards issued to non-residents.

One of the concerns voiced is whether a city is getting a fair share. Financial analysis affirms the cost effectiveness of sharing services. In the city of Healdsburg, $300,000 in taxes is generated, but library users receive $990,000 in services. It saves money to share administration, IT services, databases and materials. Would individual city libraries be willing to allow for county residents to borrow without charging for library cards?

One important function of a public library is the access of materials on a broad range of topics, with many diverse opinions, without regard to the popularity of the ideas stated.

The library director has the responsibility to protect the community’s right to read. A director must be protected from political pressure brought to bear in censorship issues. If you think that censorship could not happen in Sonoma County, refer to the 2008 and 2009 Sonoma County grand jury reports that recommended filtering library computers. Filtering is censorship. It blocks access to information.

All need to understand what will be lost by changing the JPA. The library system could become subject to the political whims of elected officials when bombarded by small, vocal groups. Funds currently specified for libraries could be transferred to other services to meet the demands of other groups.

There are methods of solving issues of concern to county supervisors. Library commissioners can be counseled or changed by those who appoint them.

It is imperative to solve problems without destroying this library system.

(Sue Struthers recently retired as branch manager of the Sebastopol Regional Library.)

20 Responses to “GUEST OPINION: County libraries should be protected”

  1. Skippy says:

    I am not a Big Govt employee.
    Are you a “fireman” as defined by Bradbury?
    (That’s from a “book”.)
    I probably have shirts older than some snarky posters, therefore I have the advantage of perspective.
    Outdated technology is in the eyes of the smartphone-holder.
    Your fad toy is all you need to be a shallow ignoramus.
    My toys will always work as well as the day they were new and require no carbon-spewing global-warming polar bear-drowning electrons to function.
    How meaningless and exhausting a life it must be throwing Grandma’s prized possessions onto the pyre.
    Many of your elders and betters don’t fear or hate hightech gadgets.
    We simply find them boring and vapid.
    Enjoy your momentary superiority!
    You are the man!

  2. Snarky says:

    Dan Drummond says “not everyone can afford computers…” in his support of the library system.

    I think its time for a solid, quality study of library users to see if the numbers are declining.

    Schools of Library Science across the USA have declined over the past 15 years to approximately 1/3 of what they once were. Know why? Because the public isn’t attending those schools. The internet has supplanted most of library functions.
    Training as a librarian is now considered a risky career choice.

  3. Snarky says:


    What is a “library” to you?

    You did not define it.

    If its merely a collection of books, then most would agree with you… except for the name calling.

    But we all know that isn’t the case in today’s world, is it? Its not mere collection of books. And that is the problem that people like you try to avoid discussing. And you refuse to admit that the internet has supplanted most of what a library does in a far faster, far less costly manner.

    So, you call people who you dislike “vandals” and “barbarians.” Classic.
    May I call you a government employee?

  4. Reality Check says:

    I’m afraid today’s library is not your grandfather’s. People are holding onto a myth that no longer exists. Yes, it’s still a valuable resource and important community asset. But it’s budget is increasingly being diverted to things that have nothing to do with preserving or making available a community’s collective wisdom.

    Every week a few thousand books and materials are transferred from branch to branch, having been put on hold by patrons. After the requisite waiting period, about a thousand will not have been picked up. So staff reverses the whole process, pulling the material off the shelf, bagging and checking it out, a driver delivers it back to its home library where the staff processes all back in.

    As most people know, free stuff gets little respect. It is time to return libraries to their roots, or start charging for services that are mostly entertainment or taken for granted.

  5. Chuck G says:

    Simply stated, many of your first educational experiences were at the library which continues to be a necessary means for many to continue their education through books and other on hand information through reference.

    I honestly don’t believe we’ve come far enough to become negligent about our Library System and the ridiculous thought of any Library closures in the near future shifting monies to other areas and out of the Library System.

  6. RICHARD says:

    A library is one of the very best things government provide.

    A city without a library is a city without a community mind and memory; a free open to all learning center were we can all learn together. Staying at home with your electronic device is so much less than a real library, in my opinion.

    Who would destroy a library ? Vandals and other barbarians would.

  7. Dan J Drummond says:

    J.R. Wirth, you narrow minded me-pad. If you need more public wi-fi, try the free wireless internet access available in all Regional Library branches. I value the internet too, but there are some things you cannot get for free like you can through the Sonoma County Library system. Not everybody can afford computers like the tablets you referenced. And it’s not just the cost of the tablet, it’s all the other costs associated with downloading content. If you would just dig a little deeper, you would be amazed at what the Sonoma County Library has to offer. I definitely get my tax dollars worth from the Sonoma County Library system.

  8. LCM says:

    J.R. Wirth:
    Wow! When was the last time you were in a library? In what town? I see a hopping local venue, serving a broad spectrum of community members every time I go there. The Sebastopol library (where I frequent) is full of people from opening to closing . . . I see maybe 2 people that I know are homeless each time I go . . . but that is only 2 of the 50 or 60 people who are there at a given time on a given day. Not a big deal. Maybe this library is unique?

  9. Snarky says:


    The last I knew, several years back, I think it was Google that was starting to digitize old, out of print books for the specific purpose of allowing old books to be retained in our world and to be used by newer generations.

    It appears that you just are trying your hardest to find excuses to retain outdated public employee job categories.

    Either that or you are simply afraid of new technology.

  10. Reader says:

    The libraries need to be returned to the cities. There is no current effective management of the county library system, budget, employees or library hygiene.

    The current management system will not work effectively and has not worked since its inception. We cannot have volunteers overseeing a multi million dollar operation. This isn’t a church bake sale.

    Return the libraries to the cities and let the locals management their responsibilites. Keep the county government out of it. They can’t manage what they are suppose to manage now.

  11. Skippy says:

    Libraries are a direct physical link to the accumulated knowledge of hundreds of generations.
    Your Kindle serves to convince you that the past is irrelevant, but mostly how supercool, hip and trendy you are.
    And you children are going to inherit the Earth?
    Methinks ye shall inherit the wind.
    My books will be here long after your toy has been tossed and recycled.
    Those who forget the past….

  12. Reality Check says:

    Once upon a time a library was where one had to go for books and all kinds of information. Few people can afford a home library of sufficient size. No more. The internet has changed all that. I no longer need to go to the library often.

    Yep, a small portion of the population is off line. But libraries would lose public support quickly if they focused on serving just this shrinking group. So, they’ve expanded their collections. No longer are books and periodicals what libraries are about.

    Libraries have become a place for free wifi and entertainment. Nice. But no longer essential the way it was once. It is well past time to expect taxpayers to continuing paying for all these added entertainment services. It’s time to start charging for such things.

  13. Snarky says:


    Care to list those “many needs” being served by the current library system?

    The taxpaying public never authorized you nor any library bureaucrat to expand the initial scope of a library function. Books.

    List the other “needs” being met & we shall see what is so important (other than keeping public employees on the job, that is).

  14. Skippy says:

    This thread reminds me of when San Francisco was debating retiring their old Fire Boat.
    Old tech; obsolete; much better systems in place now, spend the money on the homeless, blahblahblah.
    Then comes 8/17/89.
    As The Marina slowly sinks into the Bay in flames, and all the water lines snap, someone remembers the old Fire Boat.
    World Series fans exit sports bars and roll hoses to the water; the boat charges them; and the City is saved.
    Lesson: do not be too quick to throw out your old can opener just because you have a new microwave oven.

  15. Snarky says:


    I absolutely loved it that you used the word “funky” with regard to this library issue.

    You see, electronic books of any type are clean because they belong to the user and the update downloads are directly linked electronics.

    Now, compare that to your favorite library paper book. How many FUNKY, dirty, grimy, hands have touched that book (and, might we add, after having used that book in the toilet area).

    Thank you for pointing out yet another reason that paper books are FUNKY. :)

    Have a nice day, Skippy.

  16. Snarky says:

    J.R. Wirth:

    Is it interesting to you that we hear of all sorts of government studies ….

    But not a word on a study of the library system users?

    Could it be that actual usership has declined?

  17. Skippy says:

    I neither own nor will be buying some funky battery operated POS to replace a real book made of paper.
    See, when your toys quit working, mine is just fine.
    Have a nice lithium-ion day!
    Andrew Carnegie

  18. Kirstin says:

    J. R. Wirth,

    The library serves MANY needs. Believe it or not, paper books are still very important to many people. And, no, not everyone has electronic devices at the ready to download materials. Even if they did, not everything that is available in the library is readily available online.

    The libraries are also places where people can further their job searches (not everyone has a computer either), and where they can study (not every home is a good place for students to do their homework) and have access to reference materials that they can only use in the library. The libraries allow people to find and browse through older books that they would not find in a bookstore and which they might not be able to search online. The libraries have special programs for children and adults. The libraries give access to DVDs, audio books, CDs, etc. The librarians are available to help people who need to research — well, anything.

    You might not be interested in the myriad advantages of the library system, but by the numbers of books and other materials that are checked out, obviously many others are. Having a good library system is really an essential part of a functional community.

  19. Kirstin says:

    Sue Struthers has written a very good piece about her concerns. I believe she can be reassured that most people who think about this issue agree that in general the JPA has served Sonoma County library patrons well since its inception in 1974.

    Ny understanding is that this committee doesn’t intend to disturb the current independent funding of the library system.

    But some cities that have libraries don’t currently have any direct appointments on the library commission (only Santa Rosa and Petaluma do — in addition to each of the five county supervisors) and perhaps this is a point that willl be discussed and changed.

    Also, some have suggested that the mission and the duties of the commission as delineated in the JPA have led to the current situation of an isolated commission that thinks public input is for listening to but not implementing. Furthermore, the current situation has led to a commission which doesn’t make adequate adjustments at the director’s level even though after six years, it is clear that the current director is unable/unwilling to communicate and cooperate well with employees, the public, or politicians. As director of the library system she is indeed accountable solely (under the current JPA) to the commission. However, that does not mean that she is exempt from the need to deal with those parties just mentioned. She has to be able to answer questions. She has to be able to work cooperatively. She has to be able to build bridges with those who want to help the library system regain budgetary health to the point where it can reopen on Mondays.

    It is not acceptable for the director or the commission to simply dismiss consideration of ways to reopen on Mondays, yet that is exactly what they did when the annual budget was presented to the BOS in July.

    In short, I don’t think there is much, if any, support to change the JPA provisions that keep the library funding independent. It should be independent. But due to the actions of the commission and the director recently, this is the time for reconsideration of the JPA.

    And as I’ve mentioned, I hope that the committee being formed will include a few more members, specifically, I’d like to suggest a member of the public (someone from SOCOSOL?) and a library branch manager. Someone else suggested that the director should also be at these meetings.

  20. J.R. Wirth says:

    Who doesn’t have an i-pad or a kindle these days? The library system is a living buggy whip that should be closed down and the funds used for free public wi-fi.

    Libraries are relics of the pre-internet era. I’m sick of taxes going to support a staff to look after a dusty old Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia set in a daytime homeless shelter.