Libraries becoming endangered species?

I was more than a little stunned recently when I learned that the central California community of Salinas will – barring a miracle – be closing its three public libraries this spring.

According to an Associated Press report, the city council in the home town of author John Steinbeck opted for the permanent closure of its public libraries last month in the wake of major funding deficits.

Unfortunately, closing or limiting the hours of public library branches has become an increasingly easy out for cities and counties trying to cope with uncertain economic times.

It’s too bad, because libraries represent one of the last affordable institutions of learning in America.

While college tuitions skyrocket and local school districts continue to erode under California’s ongoing legislative policies of benevolent greed and inspired bungling, one can still learn something at the library.

Admittedly, libraries don’t offer degrees, but they do offer knowledge in abundance. And they’re open to everyone.

A public library – whether run by a county, city or special district – is an integral part of a strong community. It’s a way of saying we care about the intellectual health of our citizens – even if they’re only researching a 12-letter word for highway.

For tens of millions of California children, the community library has been a place where the wonder of books and storytelling was revealed for the first time.

Who can forget their first encounter with Christopher Robin, Harry Potter or Stella Luna? Or, perhaps, traveling to the wondrous worlds of Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury?

Our forefathers knew how important libraries were to a community. A century ago, they didn’t wait for local government to vote libraries into existence or for state government to pay for them. People simply got together and started libraries.

Vacaville’s first public library was the brainchild of a local women’s group, the Saturday Club, that took over the collection of the old Ulatis Book Club in 1910. Their efforts eventually resulted in a more formal Carnegie Library a few years later.

The Vacaville Public Library’s beginning was typical of many at that time – some people got some books together, found a place to house them and invited their neighbors to partake of their literary largess.

Today, the Vacaville library continues to thrive and, instead of closing branches, it’s opening a new one.

Not every public library, however, is so fortunate. And some, like Salinas, are closing their doors.

What happened? I’m afraid that many public libraries may have lost grass roots community support because they’ve have been absorbed into faceless municipal bureaucracies and citizens have gradually begun to regard them as something “the government” will take care of.

Maybe it’s time for people in cities like Salinas to stop and ask what they can do to preserve their public libraries, whether through volunteering or finding alternative funding sources. Perhaps in a country that pays even mediocre sports figures millions of dollars each to occasionally show up on a playing field, libraries will be able to find some well-heeled benefactors willing to help bankroll a branch or two.

Let’s hope so…

Originally published February 6, 2005

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