Matt Driscoll

Seems like too little, too late with those ‘microlibraries’ headed to Eastside, Hilltop

Can a small step in the right direction feel like a slap in the face at the same time?

In the case of the new “microlibrary” that opened last weekend at the Eastside Community Center, the unfortunate and probable answer is yes.

Chances are you’re not alone if you’ve never heard of a “microlibrary.” Basically, it’s a vending machine for books, DVDs and museum passes, kind of like a Redbox with fewer Vin Diesel productions.

Sticking with the above punchline for longer than it deserves, Diesel is known for being too fast and too furious.

Now, Eastside residents — along with Hilltop residents, where another microlibrary is planned in the near future — could justifiably describe this latest move from Tacoma Public Library and Metro Parks as too little, too late.

Is that a little harsh? Probably.

Too harsh?

Probably not.

Look, I’m not suggesting there’s no redeeming merit in the new microlibrary, which will provide a much-needed resource for Eastside residents.

In truth, the microlibrary looks like a cool idea, and the technology definitely seems nifty. Even better, an outreach librarian will set up shop at the Eastside Community Center, providing programming like book clubs and story times for youngsters.

All of that is good stuff, and I’m glad to see it happening.

At the same time, you don’t have to venture too far down memory lane to remember how we reached this point.

That’s precisely why you can excuse the two communities where microlibraries are planned if they’re not exactly jumping for joy with the arrival of the book-dispensing kiosks.

Back in 2011, facing a nearly $2 million budget shortfall, the Tacoma Public Library board of trustees made the painful decision to close the Swan Creek branch on the Eastside and the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Central Tacoma.

To date, they haven’t been replaced, making the nearly decade-old words of then Swan Creek librarian Susan Marihugh all the more crushing in hindsight.

“A lot of our patrons are already telling us, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m going to have to take two buses to get to (Tacoma Public Library’s Moore branch), or walk a mile to get to (the Mottet branch),” Marihugh told The News Tribune’s Lewis Kamb at the time. “When you don’t have a car and you’re pushing a baby stroller, that’s just not something that’s likely.”

“There’s going to be a lot of patrons that probably will just stop going to the library,” Marihugh added.

That means there are now second graders on the Eastside who have never lived in a neighborhood where they can easily access a library.

With all due respect for the library’s downtown branch, the same goes for most of Hilltop and certainly Central Tacoma.

That shouldn’t be OK with anyone, and it’s not like the loss — even so many years later — has gone unnoticed or been forgotten.

Nearly a year ago, as the Tacoma City Council crafted its 2019-20 budget proposal — which ultimately included $500,000 for the two planned microlibraries — Hilltop residents weren’t exactly silent about their legitimate demands for a real-life brick-and-mortar library as opposed to a souped-up kiosk.

“Now there’s going to be some kind of book vending machine … instead of a brick-and-mortar library. That’s not even going to come close to addressing our equity and access problem,” one person observed at the November 20, 2018 meeting.

“I would ask, invest in a real brick-and-mortar library in the Hilltop and don’t ask us to accept anything less,” another added.

You know what those comments represent? The understandably frustrated sentiments of a neighborhood with a history of being on the short end of the stick.

At the time, Keith Blocker, who represents Hilltop and Central Tacoma on the Tacoma City Council, acknowledged that the microlibraries are designed to “immediately address the disparities in the resources while we move forward with (a) feasibility study to identify what areas have the most need for library resources,”

As The News Tribune’s Allison Needles recently reported, the city is actively looking into the creation of a brick-and-mortar library, according to Tacoma Public Library spokeswoman Mariesa Bus

To its credit, Tacoma Public Library isn’t claiming that the new Redboxes with books are enough.

“We realize (the microlibrary) does not replace a brick-and-mortar library,” Bus told The News Tribune last week, “but this is one way that we’re reaching back out and getting services and materials to those in those communities,”

Again, that’s a good thing.

But it’s not nearly enough, and residents of the Eastside, Hilltop and Central Tacoma have every right to feel just a little slighted and disrespected until they get it right.