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Lynne Plambeck: Libraries and ‘Potato Peel Pie’

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: August 4, 2010 4:19 p.m.
Updated: August 5, 2010 4:55 a.m.

I am currently reading “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.” While the title might sound frivolous, the reader soon learns that potatoes and their peels were one of the few foods Guernsey Island residents had to eat during the World War II German occupation of their island. They also had books.

This book is about the joy of reading and discussing books. The sharing and camaraderie of a “literary society” helped get these folks through the horror of the war years, the loss of loved ones, starvation and the humiliation of German occupation.

It turns out that the Guernsey Literary Society was comprised people from every walk of life — farmers, valets, a few high-society ladies, shopkeepers, etc.  Though some had never opened a book before this time, they all found a satisfaction in this activity unknown to them before.

This is what I have always imagined to be the function of our local libraries. They are a place where everyone from any walk of life or economic level can come to experience the joy of reading and access the massive amount of information available in our society.

I have never begrudged the $25 or so I pay in property taxes to extend our local library hours because I am there so often and borrow so many books, I certainly get far more than my money’s worth.

A recent editorial in The Signal (“The city should take over the SCV’s libraries,” Aug. 1) stressed the financial aspect of libraries, and that ours was only one of five in the county that “made a profit.”

Have they missed the point? Libraries, schools, fire and police departments, water districts and other nonprofit public services are not there to make a profit, they are there to efficiently provide an important public benefit to all the members of our community. These services are provided (for the most part anyway) without charge to a particular person so that the whole community will benefit from them.

When there is a charge for services, it is “at cost.” The water district, for instance, does not add a 10-percent profit into its water-rate calculations.

Should our public libraries be contracted out to a private company, this is exactly what would happen. Well-trained existing library staff would be fired so untrained staff could be hired at cheaper rates with fewer benefits. The private company could then make a profit while saving us money.

But the service, the most important part of a public library, may very well suffer. We may not have access to a wide range of books without an additional charge. Untrained staff will not be able to provide the level of service provided now by our certified and degreed librarians.

Libraries are important to a broad range of residents from both sides of the political aisle and from all walks of life. They were important to SCOPE when we brought our first public-interest litigation over the Westridge project.

At the time, our valley was growing so rapidly that our schools were overcrowded and on double session. The county added new housing without adding books or library space to our local libraries.

The courts ruled in our favor,  and agreed that the county must abide by its development monitoring system. Existing residents should not suffer a reduction in services such as schools and libraries because new housing is built. A library-assessment fee on new development was established to ensure this did not happen in the future.

But this development assessment covered more areas in the county than just Santa Clarita. It was established in all the urban expansion areas in the county that are covered by the development monitoring system. Our hard work benefited communities throughout Los Angeles.

Santa Clarita is not an island. We are a part of Los Angeles County, a large regional urban area. I am not worried that my tax dollars help people in Castaic have a branch library, or that someone from Stevenson Ranch uses the Valencia library.

The benefits of having a well-educated community that has access to all kinds of informational material upon from which to base their thoughts and decisions will help us all.

And frankly, I don’t even mind sharing with the people of Bell, if that’s really how it works. But remember, they pay property taxes, too.

What will happen to the requirement for new development to pay its own way? Will this be eliminated in Santa Clarita?
Will a library contract be one more source of campaign contribution to the political-action committees and council members’ campaign coffers?

A reduction in the level of excellent service that we receive now from our libraries and ensuring a profit for some private company is certainly does not seem to be a good bargain for the public.

Lynne Plambeck is president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE) and a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Environmentally Speaking” appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmentalists.


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