When the city of Salinas, California, announced last fall that it would close its three public libraries due to a severe budget shortfall, it was painfully ironic. That would have made the hometown of Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck the largest city in the United States without a single public library.
When voters rejected tax measures in November that would have kept the libraries open and restored other city services, things looked pretty bleak, recalls library administrative manager Jan Neal. "We would be closed," she says. "All three of our libraries would be dark right now. We wouldn't be having this conversation."
But faced with the reality that their libraries would close their doors for good, the city responded. Business and community leaders joined with Mayor Anna Caballero in early February to form a fundraising campaign called "Rally Salinas". The goal? To raise enough money before the end of the fiscal year in June to keep the libraries open - though just barely - until a new tax measure could go before residents. By mid-April, Mayor Caballero announced the goal had been met. "This community came together very quickly to raise $500,000, which I'm very impressed with," she told reporters, admitting that the thought of raising half a million dollars in 120 days scared her. "We did it in less than 70."
In fact, "Rally Salinas" has already brought in nearly $50,000 more than its goal, and will continue to accept donations for the remaining days of the campaign. The more money that comes in, the more hours the libraries will be able to stay open.
Libraries have always been publicly supported in the United States - ever since Benjamin Franklin founded the first one in Philadelphia in the 1700's. But these days, American libraries do far more than simply lend books. They offer programs to keep kids off the streets after school, provide Internet access for those who don't have a computer at home, sponsor adult education classes and provide a place for community groups to meet.
The intangible value that libraries bring to a community has not been lost on Salinas business leaders, who usually look at the very tangible bottom line. They're not only donating to the library fund, they're supporting a new tax initiative as well. Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce chairman-elect Dennis Donahue says supporting basic city services makes good business sense. "I think most solid business people know - sometimes it's appropriate to cut, and other times it's appropriate to invest."
With the short-term fundraising over, the next challenge will be convincing residents who voted against the November tax measures to support the new proposal this time around. "We've asked people what their opinion was back in November, and what their opinion is now," Mayor Caballero says, adding that she's optimistic residents will vote yes. "I think many of them have indicated that they did not understand the severity of the situation and that they have more information now, and with that new information … they have changed their mind in what they're willing to support."
The battle to keep kids in the libraries and off the streets of this lower-middle class town is far from over. But for now, at least, the library doors in John Steinbeck's hometown will remain open on a limited schedule through the end of the year.