Wednesday, September 27, 2023
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In changing Oakland, libraries bind communities together

Libraries may look different across Oakland and elsewhere in the country. All share a mission to bring together communities and resources in one place.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Outside the West Oakland neighborhood library on Tuesday mornings, the streets fill with the sounds of children’s laughter, singing and books being read out loud.

Katarzyna Malinska and her toddler son have been regulars at family story hours here for around a year. Malinska is thankful to have a library with events like this within walking distance of her home. And besides, she said in an interview inside the library’s community room, the hour of supervised play and learning gives her a much-needed chance “to have a break.”

“He loves the story time. He’s very stimulated,” Malinska said as her son happily ran in circles around the room with several other children. “The whole week after, he’s singing all the songs. He’s like, ‘I have friends!’”

Despite vast differences between Oakland’s urban neighborhoods, the increasingly upscale California city still finds ways to keep public libraries open for moments such as these. It’s a role shared by libraries throughout the country, where the humble community institutions serve as crucial “third places” in an era of partisanship and loneliness.

Not much these days can still bring Americans together — but whether it comes to a good book or an event like family story hour, libraries often still do. Amid book bans and wild talk of “groomers,” the librarian profession is under attack like never before in modern American history. And yet evidence suggests people love these quiet and community-minded spaces, with Americans in 2019 preferring a visit to the library over a trip to the cinema.

Parents play a game with their children at a story time event at a library in Oakland, California. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)

Beyond being places for children to access books they may not otherwise be able to afford, libraries are some of the few remaining spaces for families and older adults to use a computer or even just find a cool place to rest. Libraries offer precious spaces for sanctuary and communion as people seek to connect with their communities and the broader world.

In Oakland, the public library system has 16 branches spread across the city, including the Oakland History Center, African American Museum and Library and the Tool Lending Library. Today, some operate in unique, even unorthodox, locations. Regardless, all serve the purpose of bringing people together and serving their neighborhoods' distinct needs. 

In the Montclair neighborhood on the city’s northside, the community’s public library is nestled inside a converted Dutch-style cottage. Out front, a courtyard and lawn is often used for book sales. 

During Oakland’s first week of public school in August, the branch was buzzing one afternoon as school-age children arrived from school to open library cards or congregate around shared computers. The branch is known for welcoming teens with events like crafting nights and a “DJ Radio Hour” where teens can try out being a disk jockey. For adults, there are also events like book-club nights. 

Community events like these are not unique to the Montclair library, though the specifics can look different at other branches. Montclair, after all, is affluent and white, a neighborhood known for large homes, nearby city parks and well-paved streets.

Other libraries have also found ways of hanging on in unique locations — often with far fewer resources.

What it means to serve the community can vary by location. Take the city’s Asian Branch, located in Oakland’s busy downtown Chinatown neighborhood. It’s inside a bustling shopping center, surrounded by businesses like grocers and boba bars. This branch, first opened in 1981, offers books in languages like Korean and Vietnamese and also has an “Asian Interest” collection focused on topics like the Asian-American experience and Asian immigrant history.


West Oakland’s branch, while less eye-catching, is no less important to its community. Sitting in one of the city’s historically segregated neighborhoods, the surrounding working-class neighborhood of gated homes and dilapidated streets is still haunted by a legacy of pollution and gentrification.

In keeping with the needs of the community, this branch offers a wide variety of events beyond the books it carries, from storytimes and Lego Days for children to a monthly renter’s resource workshop for adults.

West Oakland's library branch has a significant collection of books on Black history and by Black authors. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)

Sometimes, local patrons come just for the opportunity to fill up their refrigerators. At a food pantry event earlier this month, about 85 people lined up around the block to collect free staples like eggs and onions. 

The event was organized by City Team, a local nonprofit organization that helps shelter and feed displaced people. Luis Acosta, the group’s program coordinator, was there to help hand out groceries and ensure there was enough food for all. 

The West Oakland library is the only branch where CityTeam holds a bi-monthly food giveaway, Acosta said — though the group also holds more than 20 pop-ups elsewhere in the city. Typically, about 75 families show up twice a month to collect groceries provided by Alameda Food Bank. 

Acosta says the library is key to reaching people because it is easier to spread updates at a known community center that holds an important space in a neighborhood. “Nowadays with the economy, everywhere we go people are in need,” Acosta said. “This is just for people tied up on their budget. Word of mouth is very helpful.”

Such events are able to continue thanks to creative strategies that keep libraries open even through disruptions like the coronavirus pandemic — and in spite of widening inequality in Oakland and across the country. Since the 1990s, Oakland officials have found ways to funnel funds from the general fund and special parcel taxes to keep libraries open. 

In 2018, voters approved Measure D, which expanded library budgets by about $10 million per year through slight increases in property taxes. It expires in 2038. Measure C, passed last year, establishes a 30-year annual parcel tax generating about $18 million per year for local libraries.

Volunteers help people collect free food at a pantry event at a library in West Oakland. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)

Jamie Turbak, Oakland’s director of library services, said that the city’s libraries manage to fill a wide variety of needs which people may not be able to access elsewhere, including free lunch during the summer months and mobile health and dental care referrals.

“Public libraries are more than just books,” she said. “Our librarians and staff know their communities’ needs first hand because they interact daily with diverse populations.”

Back at the West Oakland library, locals like the Malinska family agree. As family story hour approached, parents pushed strollers through the doors and positioned toddlers onto soft, colorful mats for an uninterrupted hour of play and storytime. A librarian gathered the children together for some singing, then pulled out a book.

Today, they were reading “Ten Pigs" — a story about “one very happy pig” and “one bubbly bathtub,” as a synopsis puts it. Some children sat down, listening attentively. Others exclaimed and pointed at the brightly colored pages. 

Malinska’s son was more in the latter group. It was nice to have an activity for her buoyant son, she said. “Even when we’re not doing the story time — when we’re in the library and he is being so loud — they’re super understanding about it."

Yelena Pecherskaya, the child’s grandmother, was also there. Like Malinska, she was grateful to have this local gathering spot for families and an opportunity for the boy to make more friends. 

“There’s a lot of children here from all over,” she said. And as other parents and grandparents filed in for the reading event, it was a chance for her to socialize, too.

A public library inside a Chinatown shopping center in Oakland, California. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)
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