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Safe curbside library services should never have stopped in El Paso

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The city announced Wednesday that it would be resuming library curbside book pickups, which had been suspended since November of last year. Despite closing these outdoor services, the city’s librarians (at least the ones who haven’t been furloughed) have been hard at work with many digital events and projects to keep the city and it’s youth engaged in literature — such as their wonderful weekly virtual story time

Our librarians truly deserve our thanks and praise. 

As such, the decision by the city to reopen libraries for patronage by the public is a smart one. And while I believe that allowing people to safely pick up a book is the correct decision, the truth is, the city never should have ended the service three months ago. 

By the city’s own standards, the library’s curbside services ought to have long been opened. City Hall, which has adopted a philosophy of opposing any regulations that are out of harmony with the governor’s instructions, routinely denied regulations that would supersede orders from Austin. 

Back in October, the city’s legal counsel, attorney Karla Nieman, cautioned “that the governor has made it very clear that cities … can’t pass ordinances … contrary to his directives.” 

The instructions in question are displayed in Executive Order No. GA-32. This order allows for the operation, at limited capacity, of private businesses. The same executive order allows for the operation of libraries, in equal measure. This is why, for example, Austin’s library system has been operating curbside pickup programs.

If the city’s logic on non-intervention with orders from the governor is to remain coherent, then both business and library systems ought to have remained open, for both are permitted by the governor.

Consider that over this three-month period, private bookstores have remained open and were considered essential, while libraries were not. The simple difference between the two is that a library provides books to the public free of charge. Libraries, therefore, are more accessible to children and the poor, and yet, of the two, libraries were deemed to be unnecessary. 

Trepidation against completely opening libraries in an unrestricted fashion is well founded.

We all remember, too well, the November and December spike of COVID-19 cases in the El Paso region; however, restricting outdoor curbside pickup was unnecessary. 

Curbside services allow a student or an elder hungry for knowledge or tale to pick up a book without ever having to step inside the library — similar to how many are now picking up their groceries. Upon the book’s return, it should be sanitized before reuse. A simple solution to an overlooked problem that lasted a quarter of a year. 

Indeed, access to physical books from the library is rather important. The electronic books offered by the library’s online system have not been sufficient — a strange statement, no doubt, coming from a man my age, but a true statement nonetheless. 

Print books remain vastly more popular than electronic books. Physical books outsell ebooks by a factor of 10. In particular, individuals making less than $30,000 per year are 38% more likely to read in print compared to digital. In terms of age, quite paradoxically, people age 18-26 are more likely than any other age group to read in print. 

I believe that libraries help us get through crises. Indeed, many issues have arisen from the pandemic. Difficult issues—anxiety, managing education, coping with loss. Yet, in a time of persistent dominance of the electronic screen, should we not have prioritized putting books in the hands of the people to facilitate a balance between reality and the digital?

In a time of online education, should we not have prioritized putting books in the hands of our children to supplement their education with the unlimited knowledge held within those worn and crisp pages?

In a time of death and confusion, should we not have prioritized putting books in the hands of the people to alleviate the current disillusion and transport one’s imagination into the worlds of tales and prose?  

We should have had access to our libraries for months now. 

In times of great crisis, the mystery of it all makes it seem as if the solutions to the disaster are unknown or unfeasible. Too difficult, too costly, too dangerous. But the solution to a limited access to literature and knowledge has always been simple: allow libraries to operate curbside services.  

It is very good that the city has now allowed the public to access our libraries, but it remains true that this decision was long overdue.

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Ryan James Solis

Ryan James Solis of El Paso is a junior at Harvard College on a gap year from studying history and economics. He is a Gates, Jack Kent Cooke, and Coca-Cola scholar.

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