Spanish materials, adaptive technology, and maybe fine-free: Long Beach to address gaps in library services

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Long Beach’s libraries aren’t up to snuff. A recent audit revealed major barriers in access and equity in the City’s library, including a lack of Spanish-language materials, adaptive technology for persons with disabilities and fines that disproportionately impact low-income communities of color.

In response to the audit, the Long Beach City Council moved to address six key areas for improvement at their Tuesday, March 2 meeting. 

“It’s especially important right now, I believe, for us to take a look at our library services and make sure that we are serving the public in the best way that we can,” Suzie Price, co-author of the item, said. 

During the pandemic and the rise of remote work, libraries have functioned as a place of respite. They offer internet, homework assistance for students, workforce development and much-needed technology in an age of online learning. 

“We’re seeing that obviously, libraries during the pandemic are beyond just a place to check out books,” Councilmember Suely Saro said. 

There are many barriers to adequately serve Long Beach’s diverse populations. In addition to funding constraints that existed before the pandemic, Long Beach residents rely on libraries for a number of services beyond the scope of checking out materials. 

Library hours, for example, don’t adequately meet community preferences. In a 2018 survey, most respondents preferred libraries to be open on Mondays so youth can complete homework assignments. Traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours and Sunday hours are also barriers to access, especially for those who work during the week. 

“The library is needed now more than ever to support Long Beach families affected by the challenges of distance learning and record unemployment,” Nicole Ballard, president of the African American Heritage Society of Long Beach, said. 

Spanish-speaking residents will find few offerings at their public libraries. Though over 40% of Long Beach’s population is Latinx, 95% of library materials and 97% of programming is offered in English.

North and West Long Beach have higher percentages of residents with limited English proficiency. (Map from 2020 Library Services Audit | City of Long Beach)

The audit states that “people with limited English proficiency do not have the same opportunities to use and benefit from these library resources.”

Persons with disabilities also lack access to libraries. Only two of the 12 libraries offer adaptive technology for persons with disabilities. 

“I know firsthand how critical these services are,” Councilmember Mary Zendejas, who formerly volunteered at the Library’s Center for Adaptive Technology, said. 

“We need to remember and address that there are many residents of our city that don’t have access to libraries near them or near where they live,” she said. “In many cases, there are the exact communities that would benefit greatly from having access to tools.”

The item also looks to address library fines, which the audit states are more likely to be a financial burden on low-income families and could impact their ability to use library resources meant to be accessible to all patrons.

“[I hope that] we can look at those areas that are going to be most impacted, especially to disenfranchised and communities of color,” Uranga said. 

Map from 2020 Library Services Audit | City of Long Beach

He said that a “fining system that punishes people” makes people more reluctant to return materials, especially if the fines become untenable. He suggested a forgiveness program to replace fines. 

Currently, library cardholders have their accounts suspended once their fines reach $20. The audit found that library fees make up less than 1% of the Library’s operating budget and take up staff time that could be better spent on patron services. 

“Let’s eliminate fines. Let’s get the books back,” Uranga said. “We need our materials.”

The item also seeks to improve multilingual outreach and create a data collection system to track the usage of Library programs and citizen satisfaction.

“We all know the library system has absorbed reductions in its annual budget for more than 12 years,” Barbara Sosa, president of Friends of the Library, said. “And yet the demands of the residents have only increased, especially from the underserved communities.”

The city manager will have 90 days to report back on additional resources that may be needed to implement the changes.

The next Long Beach City Council meeting will take place on Tuesday, March 9 at 5 p.m. via teleconference.

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