Zombies protest proposed Oakland library closures

Library supporters take to the streets in Oakland to protest the potential closure of 14 city libraries. Photo by Nicole Jones

$58 million dollars – that’s how deep in the red Oakland’s city budget is this year. Mayor Jean Quan has been proposing several budget solutions – the most extreme being an “all cuts” budget. This would give the green light to slash many of the city’s public services, including libraries. It would leave four branches for the nearly 400,000 Oakland residents who live in the city. Librarians and their supporters say this would hurt low-income neighborhoods the most – and it would risk the future of a generation of young readers.

On Friday, 16 people were arrested in a protest in downtown Oakland, condemming cuts to the libraries. Demonstrators chanted about cutting the police department, rather than the libraries, as well as “books not banks,” saying financiers are getting rich while public services are being gutted across the nation.

Today, Save Oakland Libraries is hosting an all day “read in” in front of City Hall. Tomorrow evening, June 21, the Oakland City Council will present budget recommendations.

While the city council will make final budget decisions due in July, librarians are taking the battle beyond the bookshelves and into the streets with some very creative tactics. KALW’S Nicole Jones has more.

*     *     *

NICOLE JONES: Librarians and megaphones might not seem like the most natural combination. Add a bloody face, ripped t-shirt, and a groan from beyond the grave, and you get something one might call supernatural: zombie librarians with megaphones.

AMY MARTIN: Where will our children go after school? Just hang out at the graveyard?

As the Oakland City Council considers killing three-quarters of the library budget, librarians like Amy Martin decided to take part in a zombie walk to dramatize the effect of shutting down 14 of 18 libraries.

MARTIN: It would pretty much decimate the library system, and we think that would be the end of the world so we're coming out to say zombies support the Oakland Public Library.

Zombies need libraries open. Keep Oakland's brains delicious.

It's a post-apocalyptic parade down the sidewalk of Telegraph Avenue. Zombies young and old lurch past gas stations and coffee shops filled with the living – and confused. Believe it or not, undead librarians crawling down city streets is not a new concept, according to Martin.

MARTIN: The librarians of Brooklyn did it a few years ago. We have an employee who came from Brooklyn and she suggested that we repeat it here since it was a successful tactic there.

METTIN SVEEN: The sign says, “As a zombie, I say have a heart, if you know what I mean, and save the brains and support Oakland Public Library.”

I'm Mettin Sveen, I'm a volunteer at the Rockridge branch library in Oakland, and once a week I'm there for a few hours and I see the kids come in, and the retired people, and the unemployed.

Those are among the last populations Oakland's elected officials want to cut from. But the city has been suffering budget crises for years. It's laid off police officers, it's created furlough days, and it's closed library branches one day a week. The latest proposal would cut the number of library jobs in the city from 215 to 23.

SVEEN: We've been here almost 50 years now and this is about as serious as I've seen it. We would hate to see it get any worse.

PROTESTER: Libraries give brains. Brains.

The zombie crawl is just one tactic Oakland library lovers like Mettin Sveen and Amy Martin have taken.

MARTIN: We've also been doing some direct public actions that are peaceful and cheerful and family friendly. We did two guerilla story times so far and we're going to do more.

Those are surprise story times that happen in public places.

MARTIN: And the end of which we announce the libraries may be closing forever if you don't support and contact your city council representative.

Oakland libraries have been threatened with closure before. But in 2004, voters saved them by passing Measure Q. It's a parcel tax that funds libraries with up to $14 million annually. However, the money only kicks in if the city dedicates at least $9 million from its general fund – and that's very much in question in the mayor's latest budget scenarios. The branches most at risk for closing are in the lower-income neighborhoods of East and West Oakland. Right now, they're job centers for the unemployed. They provide Internet access for those who need it.

LAURE WILHAM: Libraries aren't just libraries – they're the whole community.

Main branch children's librarian Laurie Wilham says the city council needs to consider all the intangibles, including Oakland's literacy rate. According to recent California standards test scores, 73% of second graders in the Oakland Unified School District are at risk because their reading skills are not up to grade level.

WILHAM: There's a ton of kids who come to libraries after school and it's really the one place that they're safe. They may not be safe at home, they may not be safe at school, but they are safe at the library.

The library's total budget last year was about $23.6 million. That's 2% of the city budget. Parks and recreation takes up 3%; police services – 40%. If Mayor Quan's all-cuts budget were to pass, four fire stations, five recreation centers, and 14 libraries would go.

METTIN: Brains, brains, books, brains.

Whether the stake is put in the heart of Oakland's libraries, or other services, people in the city are sure to be feeling the pain when the final budget is signed.

In Oakland, I'm Nicole Jones, for Crosscurrents.

How are libraries doing in your neighborhood or city? Let us know on our Facebook page.