A 2010 report of the most literate cities in the U.S. placed Stockton at the absolute bottom. The city had climbed three spots on the list by 2016. That was the same year voters passed Measure M, the Library and Recreation Special Tax, approving $200 million for these services.
Stockton resident Mas’ood Cajee says the measure has already improved Stockton’s library system. Cajee had volunteered as chair of the advocacy group Strong Libraries = Strong Communities to get Measure M passed, and was then appointed by newly elected Mayor Michael Tubbs as chair of the oversight committee for administering funds.
“I have three boys and until the passage of this ballot measure we could never go to the main library on a Saturday,” says Cajee, because it used to be closed. He adds that even though Stockton perennially rests at the bottom of Central Connecticut State University’s annual list of literate cities, this wasn’t always the case.
“Until the 60s, 70s, and 80s we had a robust library system,” he says, “and even going back to Stockton’s golden age at the turn of the [20th] century, we actually have a history and documents that show that Stockton was perhaps America’s most literate city.”
Now the City of Stockton is moving forward with what supporters say is a major step toward continuing to improve a long-neglected library system, using $15 million from Measure M funds to design and construct the Northeast Stockton Library and Recreation Center on West Lane. City officials hope the completion of this new facility in an underserved area of town will not only help improve residents’ literacy rates, but will also represent another step forward in the city’s ongoing efforts to climb out of its troubled past.
More Than a Neighborhood Library
City officials would like to see the new library completed by the end of 2020, but former vice mayor and councilman Elbert Holman, who was termed out in 2018 after 10 years on the council, says this project has already been years in the making.
“I had been championing this endeavor for 10 years, and the closest library to the kids that live out here is probably 5 miles away and separated by Interstate 5,” Holman says. “There really is a lack of library services in the north of Stockton, and these kids have been neglected for quite a while, but the fiscal issues played a part in that. But we’re here now and excited about it.”
More than just a neighborhood library, the Northeast Stockton Library and Recreation Center reflects the changing needs of modern communities, says the city’s Director of Community Services John Alita. “The library of the 21st century is really about providing educational opportunities for people through printed material, digital material, as well as a place for experiences,” he says. “It will be a place where they can do things in addition to just read, and on the recreation side, there is a lot of interest in a gym.”
Alita says the Sacramento firm Architectural Nexus is expected to complete its design around June, after receiving input from community members. “We held our first meeting in October at the Ronald McNair High School, which is adjacent to the site,” he says. “There will also be additional public meetings coming up,” with details available on the city’s website.
Creating a ‘Third Place’
Cajee hopes the new library will improve Stockton’s status as a literate city, but in the meantime, Alita says the city already is expanding services. “There’s a need to expand library and recreation services, and the city already placed a small library in an existing community center,” Alita says. These “micro libraries,” the first of which was launched in a designated room of the Arnold Rue Community Center, include computer labs, programs and small print collections.
“The focus is really programming,” says Alita, which can include storytime for toddlers and afterschool programs for students. Furthermore, the City of Stockton has plans for at least two more micro libraries and also is exploring “a mobile recreational unit to bring services to parks and places where we don’t have libraries,” he says.
The ultimate goal with new micro libraries and especially the Northeast Stockton Library and Recreation Center, says Alita, is to create a social space for the community. “It’s going to be a safe place to hang out, and we want to create some great common space,” he says, referencing the “third place” model of Starbucks.
But for residents like Cajee, the prospect of a new library represents more than just a place to be — but also a city aiming to become something more. “I want to live in a quality community where the quality of life is high, and libraries are any community’s most important resource,” Cajee says. “You can’t be a great city without a great library.”