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Local Libraries Close Their Doors to the Public

  • Ben Adler

For more than a century and half, free public libraries have been an important institution in American communities, providing open access to knowledge - from literary classics to the latest books, magazine, and technology. But across the country, public libraries are in jeopardy. Cities and counties, facing record budget deficits, are choosing to cut library services to avoid reducing funds for public safety services, such as police and fire fighters. And now, in a somewhat ironic twist, Salinas, California - birthplace of literary icon John Steinbeck - will become the first city in the nation to close all of its public libraries.

Salinas is the heart of Steinbeck country - and the fertile ground for some of his best-known classics, like East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath. The economic depression faced by the hard-working farmhands and fruit pickers he wrote about ended in the 1930's… but the now predominantly-Latino town of 150-thousand remains a struggling agricultural community. On a small side street, one of the town's three libraries bears Steinbeck's name. Outside the building, a statue of the Nobel Prize-winning author has a piece of rain-soaked cardboard dangling from its neck. It reads, 'Please do not close my library.'

Inside the building, branch manager Jan Neal is heartbroken. "To me, the public library is a key facility in a community that is an expression of democracy," she says. "We have public libraries as a civil service. It's not possible that our community wouldn't have that."

But not only is it possible, it's official. Faced with a 9-million-dollar budget gap, the city council approved millions of dollars in cuts to city services earlier this fall. Those cuts included reducing funds for police and fire stations and closing the town's recreation centers and its three public libraries. The libraries will begin shutting down in January.

Salinas isn't the only local government in California with a budget shortfall, but compared to other cities in the region, its revenues are especially low. Nearby Monterey, with its famous aquarium and large tourism base, generates more than $1400 per resident. Salinas generates only $413. "When you combine that with the poor performance of the economy and state raids on Salinas, we are in dire financial straits," says the deputy city manger, Jorge Rifa. "When other communities across the state catch a cold, we catch pneumonia, and that is the position that we are in today."

In November, city officials asked residents to approve three tax measures that, together, would have raised 7 million dollars. The new revenue would have kept libraries and recreation centers open and retained police officers and fire fighters.

But voters approved only one of the three measures, good for a million dollars. Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero says that's not enough to fund the libraries. She thinks residents may have thought the city council was bluffing. "People believed that it was not really a possibility that the libraries would close," says Mrs. Caballero. "So there were mixed messages and there was misinformation going around the community and we just didn't have enough time to really explain and get the message out."

Threats of library cuts or closures are nothing new for American Library Association President-elect Michael Gorman. He hears about them every week, but he says working class towns like Salinas are the ones that can least afford to shut their library doors. "It affects some of the people who need recorded knowledge and information most, namely children, older people and the poor. You won't have access to high-quality library services, and that has effects on all aspects of these people's lives," Mr. Gorman explains.

In particular, many Salinas residents worry that with libraries and recreation centers closed, teenagers will have nowhere to go after school but the streets. That could exacerbate the town's already significant gang problem.

A solution could come in the form of a new tax measure that library advocates hope to put before voters sometime next year. They plan to use research and grassroots campaigning to make sure that when the new measure does go on the ballot, it will win.

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