By Margaret S. Crocco
Literacy is in a state of crisis throughout the country but nowhere more so than in California, the state with the lowest literacy rate in the nation.
Santa Barbara is not exempt from this problem, as a recent article in the Independent made clear:
“In the past three years, the number of 3rd to 6th grade students meeting or exceeding grade-level standards for reading grew from 44 percent in 2021 to 47 percent in 2023.”
Although this small improvement is welcome news, such a low literacy rate at this critical juncture in a child’s schooling provides evidence of the crisis of literacy in our own community.
Some key questions. Why should a low literacy rate concern all citizens? And why are libraries critical remedies to this problem?
A strong relationship exists between mastering literacy and later life outcomes. Educational research indicates that students who do not master literacy skills by the fourth grade often remain functionally illiterate throughout their lives .
Moreover, “85 percent of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally low-literate” - and being functionally illiterate “reduces the probability of high school completion and increases the probability of incarceration later in life," according to data from the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Despite these sobering statistics, during this fiscal season, the Santa Barbara City Council is considering cuts to the Santa Barbara Public Library’s budget -- which has seen repeated budget cuts over the last several.
Continuing cuts will damage the Library’s capacity to help advance literacy, a bedrock skill fundamental to a robust democracy, a thriving economy, and public safety.
Why The Library matters. Parents rely on libraries to help stimulate their children’s reading ability and knowledge acquisition skills. The Pew Research Center has reported that reading for fun – and information – has been associated with higher scores on national reading tests
The Library provides tutoring programs for struggling readers throughout the year through its OG Readers Program. Its summer reading program is critical in addressing the "summer slide" in academic skills -- as well as the problem of hunger in our community by providing nourishing meals from the Foodbank.
The Library-on-the-Go Van brings the library to neighborhoods across the City, including regular stops at Alameda Park, Harding School, Bohnett Park, and Shoreline Park for its Stay and Play, Music and Movement, and Juegos in the Park offerings.
Besides its digital and hard-copy book and magazine collections, the Library sponsors a wide variety of programs for all age groups, including numerous adult education programs. These include opportunities for acquiring English as a second language, promoting entrepreneurial ventures for women and teens, addressing the needs of citizens who are unhoused, and assisting individuals without access to the Internet and needing help, for example, with filing their taxes or finding jobs.
The Eastside and Central Libraries offer opportunities for teens interested in community service and to participate in the Teen Advisory Board for creating events tailored for this age group
In sum, the Library is a full-service educational institution and a social bedrock of our community. Cuts to the Library’s budget, along the lines of those demanded by City Council, will impact the young and the old, English and Spanish speakers, eastside and westside residents, readers and non-readers.
If these budget cuts go forward, the Library will have to cut its collection budget to the bone, which will affect all cardholders. On top of all the other cuts over the last several years, the collective effect of these budget cuts will be to undermine greatly the capacity of the Library to achieve its central purpose in contributing to the public welfare of the entire community.
Bottom line. The Library needs funding to expand, not curtail, its hours and activities. The City Council should invest more in the Library so that it can expand its hours of access and maintain its collection budget. Making any other decision will not only damage the welfare of our community today but will also threaten our civic, social, and economic well-being going forward.
Please write the Mayor and City Council to make your opinions heard in providing the Library with the support that it — and we as the citizens who benefit from it - deserve.
Margaret S. Crocco is Chair of the Santa Barbara Library Advisory Board and Professor Emerita, of Teachers College, Columbia University,
Image: Inside Santa Barbara's central library (SB Independent); Margaret Crocco (courtesy photo).