After nearly 40 years, San Luis Obispo County Public Libraries is leaving the Black Gold library system—a cooperative of seven Central Coast jurisdictions that shared library catalogs, service platforms, and finances.
The SLO County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted for the libraries' withdrawal at its Jan. 25 meeting. During the meeting, Director of Libraries Chris Barnickel explained that the Black Gold cooperative model had stopped serving the county's best interests—and was hindering its ability to improve library services for the community.
"The things we want to be able to do to provide services to our community members, to our patrons, we're not able to do with this system as it stands," Barnickel told county supervisors.
SLO County wasn't the only jurisdiction to leave Black Gold this week. On Jan. 25, the Santa Barbara City Council also voted unanimously to withdraw. Black Gold—which is managed by a nearly 40-year-old joint powers agreement between SLO County, Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, Paso Robles, Lompoc, Goleta, and Santa Paula—lacked flexibility, and its members started to clash on policies and decisions, according to Barnickel and a Santa Barbara city staff report.
"It's tough anytime you have disparate budgets placed in the same room," Barnickel told New Times. "You've got a little jurisdiction that contributes $50,000 [per year]; then you got us contributing $565,000. And it's senate rules: Each of us gets one vote. ... Whether they wanted to or not, a lot of times they were unable to move forward with services we wanted."
Barnickel said that the exit allows the county to invest more in its own library catalog, work with the vendors it wants to, and have more control and flexibility over its services.
But the exit drew strong reactions from community members who felt blindsided by the decision. Third District Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg said she received an "enormous amount of public comment" ahead of the Jan. 25 meeting, with many residents furious about the exit.
"I'm supportive [of the withdrawal]," Ortiz-Legg said at the Jan. 25 meeting, "but I do think that because of the timing ... my criticism of it at this point would be our messaging and getting in front of it."
A primary concern expressed by locals opposed to the exit is that the county's withdrawal will cut users off from the catalogs of other libraries in the Black Gold network.
"A major benefit of participation in the Black Gold system is the ability to draw on the collections of such large, well-stocked libraries as those in Santa Barbara, Ventura ... and to check out books and return them to any Black Gold library," resident Eric Greening wrote to the county in a public comment email.
Barnickel said in response that the county libraries will continue to collaborate with the Black Gold jurisdictions, and that changes to the county system won't even require new library cards for members. But he added that one of the goals of going independent is to invest in the county's catalog so users won't need to check out books from other libraries.
"It's the regionalism that I think people are sentimental about," Barnickel said. "But there's nothing that precludes us from sharing materials with other jurisdictions."
Laura Emerson, president of the SLO Friends of the Library, told New Times that while the final decision to withdraw from Black Gold took her by surprise, Barnickel provided a detailed explanation about the timing that made sense. The county had until Feb. 1 to formally initiate the withdrawal, and it takes effect July 1.
Emerson said she knew SLO County had been struggling over the past year to work out disagreements with the Black Gold cooperative.
"It's a very complicated relationship. ... He'd run out of options," Emerson said. "The one takeaway that I see in all of this is how many people are so very passionate about our libraries. I think SLO County has one of the most incredible libraries I've ever been involved with ... and none of that is going to change." Δ