Holly Hubbard Preston: MIA at the Library

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What’s a library without a children’s librarian? Holly Hubbard Preston says the townspeople of St. Helena are finding out.

The children’s annex at the St. Helena Library looks exactly as I remember — shelves stuffed with books and topped with oversized papier-mâché animals, craft tables and slouchy seats perfect for cozy reading. Consistent and comforting, save for one thing—there’s no children’s librarian here to greet me.

Our longtime librarian, Leslie, retired in June 2020. Her position was supposed to be filled by now. Thanks to citywide budgetary fall-out from COVID-19, the funds earmarked for Leslie’s replacement are needed more urgently elsewhere, including our fire department.

No stranger to wildfires, I get the need for bolstered fire crew support. Still, the empty chair at the children’s desk alarms me. In the same way fire fighters respond to crisis, so, too, do librarians.

During her tenure, Leslie knew which kids needed Wi-Fi access and afternoon care. As a trusted matchmaker, she paired kids with books the way one might shoes, taking size and also personality into account.

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Cristian, a young friend of mine, remembers riding his bike to the library for the first time when he was eight. With Leslie’s help, he rode home with three books that day, and a ton of confidence.

It’s great the governor wants to increase funding for California’s statewide Lunch at the Library program benefitting low-income kids. But I wonder who administers such a program and whether they will know those in need?

There are 1,130 public libraries in California, many facing the same budgetary pressures as here in St. Helena.

As the pandemic continues to be a drag on city tax revenues, I worry the hiring of a full-time children’s librarian will be cut back permanently here and elsewhere, stunting a new generation of readers for years to come.

With a Perspective, I’m Holly Hubbard Preston.

Holly Hubbard Preston is a journalist and author.