Michael Fischer’s comments to the City Council about libraries on this National Library Week

The following comment was emailed to the City Council before their meeting on April 18, 2023, when the council passed a resolution on National Library Week for April 23-29, 2023.

I’m Michael Fischer and I have the honor and responsibility of being El Cerrito’s Library Commissioner.  This year and last I have been chair of the Contra Costa County Library Commissioner.  I am proud to serve both the community which truly loves its library and a city council and staff that strongly supports its library.

Next week, as the council will note tonight, is National Library Week — a time to celebrate our nation’s libraries, library workers’ contributions and promote library use and support. Our love for libraries was put very succinctly by J.K. Rowling when she attributed to Hermione the statement, “When in doubt, go to the library.”  Sometime earlier than Harry Potter, Albert Einstein said, “The only thing you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.” That answers the where question.

The answer to the why question is illustrated by the theme for National Library Week 2023 —”There’s More to the Story,” illustrating the fact that in addition to the books in library collections, available in a variety of formats, libraries offer so much more. Many libraries now lend items like museum passes, games, musical instruments, and tools. Library programming brings communities together for entertainment, education, and connection through book clubs, story times, movie nights, crafting classes, and lectures. And library infrastructure advances communities, providing internet and technology access, literacy skills, and support for businesses, job seekers, and entrepreneurs.

When El Cerrito celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2017, one of the events was a poetry reading at the library by then California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia.  He made a pledge that he would, as Poet Laureate, visit all 58 counties in California and in each county he chose to give his presentation at a local library.  He chose the library, he said, because it is the one place where everyone is welcome.  Or, as Neil Gaiman said last week when he received the St. Louis Literary Award, “A library is the only public space that doesn’t expect you to spend money.”

But, while we’re on the subject of spending money, a library is not free in the financial sense.  You cannot build a library some 75 years in the past, do a small renovation some 12 years later, and expect it to serve the needs of today’s population.  We’ve grown over 40% in population since 1948.  And the services of a library today, as briefly mentioned above, are also greater and take up more space.  Most modern libraries have meeting rooms.  Ours does not.

If you want to see what a 21st Century library looks like, there are a few in our county — San Ramon, Brentwood, and Pleasant Hill to name the most recently built ones.  El Cerrito deserves no less.  Some of us who love our library and want to make it what it truly should be have formed a group to work with the city in bringing this dream to reality.  We anticipate that there is likely to be a ballot measure on the March 2024 ballot to fund a new library as part of the transit oriented development that is taking place at the El Cerrito Plaza BART Station.  If you’d like to join us in working on this endeavor, write to the Committee for a Plaza Station Library (El Cerrito) at C4PSLEC@gmail.com and we’ll get in touch with you.  Seventy-five percent of our residents in the just released community survey from our City Manager rated this new library as Medium or High Priority, the highest of any of the potential facilities mentioned.  We can do this — and I look forward to working with all El Cerritans.

Yes, it will take money.  Worthwhile things usually do.  Walter Cronkite, famed news anchor, put it this way: “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.”

I’d also like to talk about the role of libraries in terms of freedom of information.  We are finding, principally in regard to public school libraries but also at community libraries, efforts to prevent information from being available to all our patrons.  Neil Gaiman, again, notes, “Libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

Others have expressed similar thoughts:

Librarian Jo Godwin notes, “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.”

And novelist Sarah J Mass says, “Libraries are full of ideas, perhaps the most dangerous and powerful of all weapons.”

Whatever else the computer and internet age has brought us, it is clear that we have moved from eons of information scarcity to an era of what might be called information glut.  One of my jokes is that you can find many answers to any question on the internet, and one of them may actually be correct.

According to Eric Schmidt of Google, in just two days currently the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization until 2003.  (This quote is somewhat dated so it is probably more now.)  The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle.

And that brings me to the last subject I want to talk about — the who of libraries — namely our librarians and other library staff.  They have the magic that can make it all work.  Most libraries have these magicians — and we in El Cerrito are most fortunate to have true wizards.  They’re the reason that El Cerrito, by no means the largest library in the West County nor the largest city,  has the largest patronage of any library in the West County.  Stop in to our library and let the staff know you appreciate them.  And National Library Week is a good time to do this — as is any other time of the year.

What do these magicians do?

Neil Gaiman notes that Google can bring you back 100,000 answers.  A librarian can bring you back the right one.

Thank you.

Michael Fischer

El Cerrito Designated Library Commissioner

Chair, Contra Costa County Library Commission

Secretary, Library Foundation of Contra Costa County

Parliamentarian/Board Member, Friends of the El Cerrito Library

Honorary Board Member, El Cerrito Library Foundation

We help bring people and IDEAS together