I'm in the Southside Library's parking lot for at least the third time to pick up New Mexico history books I reserved online in preparation for our podcast Reported's fourth season.
Just a few minutes after I call the front desk with my library card number, a worker brings the books out to my car in a black plastic bag, which he places in the backseat through an open window: completely contactless and COVID-19-safe.
With the state's historical archives closed to the public, I have had to lean heavily on the public library system.
I'm not alone.
Santa Fe's libraries shut down in response to COVID-19 in late March, leaving only the digital library and Wi-Fi available and cutting off public computer access and other resources only within reach inside. When operations partially re-opened with limited hours and curbside pickup on May 20, circulation increased substantially. Patrons checked out 26,741 total digital and physical materials in May, which jumped to 33,462 in June. (Granted, usage is still less than if the library were physically open: in January, users checked out 59,931, for example).
Wi-Fi sessions increased by 160%, from 46,038 in April to 119,510 in June, with the vast majority of those sessions taking place from the library's sidewalks and parking lots.
People also are participating in a virtual summer reading program with online performers, grab-and-go craft kits and a reading log where families and all ages can record their reading to earn prizes throughout the summer. The Bilingual Books and Babies program went virtual and the Santa Fe Walking Collaborative continues to convene at Southside for guided walks.
While data and public opinion show the integral part libraries play in the health of a community—especially one with major gaps in digital equity and income like Santa Fe—the city's three libraries have already been hit with limited operating hours and employee furloughs.
Even complete closures of one or more of the libraries appear possible because of the city's projected $100 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that began last week. A grim survey issued this spring asked residents, among other questions, if they preferred to close all libraries and keep recreation facilities open or close all recreation facilities in order to keep the libraries open—or just to keep some rec centers and some libraries open.
"Libraries are crucial to equity in the community. Although we're not a revenue-generating entity, we provide lifelong learning," says Maria Sanchez-Tucker, division director for the Santa Fe Public Library. "We support digital equity. We assist community members with technology, training and navigating resources, all types of resources. We support K-12 education and literacy, and these are things that are fundamental to our society. They just are so important to a community's well-being."
Mary Grace Flaherty, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill who researches public libraries and health promotion, agrees. She tells SFR that oftentimes people see libraries as merely a collection of books, not an institution that could increase equity in a community.
But research by the Pew Center finds that Black, Hispanic/Latino and low-income families are the most likely to use internet access at a library, and 78% of the Hispanic people surveyed said closing their local libraries would have a major impact on their community.
"[Libraries] are essential resources in communities, but it's hard when something is viewed as a book repository to compare that to the fire department in terms of funding," Flaherty says. "But they are vital…especially now, they're information banks and they're the only organization in communities that are open to absolutely everyone."
When SFR asked the city which libraries could be shut down completely or have permanently reduced hours, spokeswoman Lilia Chacon replied via email that "most of the questions you ask have not yet been decided and are part of the difficult budget calculations currently underway."
The fiscal year 2019-2020 budget for the city's libraries is $5.2 million. But that will likely see reductions this summer when the city works on a new one.
The Santa Fe Public Library Board is another group working on the future of the city's libraries. Marie Schow, president of the board, tells SFR the city finalized a planning study on the public libraries in December 2019 exploring who the libraries were and were not reaching; how the city could improve reach; and recommending changes to the number of facilities, the types of facilities and the services provided.
Budget woes have put most suggestions on hold, though Schow says the study found that Santa Feans want a larger library in the Midtown area.
"We have [Oliver] La Farge library, which serves so many people, and the building is just not big enough for the number of people that are going there. So I know it's been discussed that there could be a Midtown Library on the Midtown Campus," Schow says. "That's something that we're waiting to see more on. I mean, any prioritization of the library in the city budget would be great at this point."
The library system has its defenders on the governing body. Councilor Roman Abeyta, who represents the Southside District 3 and chairs the Finance Committee, tells SFR he isn't in favor of closing the library in his district, even with a budget crisis.
Abeyta thinks the city should look at potentially moving money from the police department's budget and putting it toward community services like libraries with "some type of roundtable with community leaders and our police and our elected officials where we start talking about the issues."
"When you look at the amenities that we have or lack of amenities that we have here in District 3 compared to the other districts, the library is the only thing we have," Abeyta says. "We don't have senior centers. We don't have rec centers. We don't even have as much park space as the other districts and so I am going to advocate and actually fight for keeping the Southside Library open through this and even completely open for the normal hours, because, like I said, we don't have the luxury of cutting back in District 3 like some of the other districts."