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Is Time Running Out on Public Libraries–and Literature?

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Inside a deserted building in Salinas, down one pitch-black aisle, somewhere on shelves reeking of mildew, a book will be waiting. Maybe there’ll be more than one copy. It won’t matter. The building will be locked.

Last fall, the voters of Salinas declined to rescind the cuts that doomed the building, which is their public library. There are two more like it, and they’ll go dark in the new year, too. Sometime between now and the end of the city’s fiscal year, on June 30, Salinas librarians will put the book and thousands like it beyond use. For some, this bitter act may be the last of their careers.

This might all be happening sooner, but finances and people obey different calendars. Readers of literature observe still another calendar, and, as the National Education Association’s recent “Reading at Risk” report suggests, their time may be running out, too.

But back to the book. If anybody could still read it in Salinas after June 30, on page 220 they’d find this passage: “They’ve closed the chapel….Mummy’s requiem was the last mass said there. After she was buried the priest came in–I was there alone. I don’t think he saw me–and took out the altar stone and put it in his bag; then he burned the wads of wool with the holy oil on them and threw the ash outside; he emptied the holy water stoup and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary.”

This great, unspeakably sad passage describes what’s called the “deconsecration” of a family chapel, from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. But it could almost as easily be describing what’s going on in Salinas, or in Americans’ reading lives. “For the first time in modern history,” according to NEA Chairman Dana Gioia’s preface to the report, “less than half of the adult population now reads literature.”

A Right to Read

So do we just deconsecrate the Salinas Public Library, kiss off our old ideas about a literate society and go home? What, in addition to the always enjoyable wallowing in voluptuous despair, can be done?

For one thing, of course, libraries need more funding. They share this need, at the moment, with schools, health care, job training, foreign aid and just about everything else except the war–thanks to which, none of these should be expecting much help any time soon.

Until library funding can increase, it needs to be much more equitably distributed. There’s simply no excuse for a system in which San Francisco embarks on an ambitious branch library renovation and construction program while, just down the 101, the next John Steinbeck can’t check out a book by the last one.

Naturally, any system that proposes to equalize library funding regionally–let alone on a statewide basis or, heaven forbid, nationwide–will run into a buzz saw. Those of us prosperous or lucky enough to have good library service don’t want to settle for less, just so that others with nothing can have a little more.

That’s zero-sum thinking, we say. Let Salinas vote to tax itself like San Francisco did, we say, if they want a system to rival ours. Why should we have to tax ourselves twice as much, just because the politicians of Salinas can’t figure out how to keep the lights on?

This line of thinking makes a certain amount of sense, right up until you remember that a decently stocked library isn’t the right of every voter, or of every politician, or even of every parent. It’s the right of every kid. Even if the neighbors voted against a library bond. Even if elected representatives fritter away the money. Even if the kid’s parents don’t really see the point. John Steinbeck’s parents didn’t always approve of his appetite for books, either.

A more sensible argument against equalizing library expenditures is that it’ll never happen in a million years. As long as politicians get paid to represent their constituents and not somebody else’s, no district is ever going to give away a chunk of its hard-won funding to a bunch of “underserved” library users whom they’ve never even met.

A Modest Proposal for a Sister System

But what if the luckier library patrons–let’s call us “the overserved”–had met our less fortunate counterparts, or at least knew more about them than we do now? To be specific, what if the State Library set up a system of sister libraries? What if, perhaps not a library’s overall budget, but at least the fraction of it that comes from its Friends of the Library support group, had to be shared with a correspondingly impoverished library in the region? That way, the Friends of, say, the Carmel Public Library could keep donating just as much to their library operating budget as they always have–provided they helped the Friends of the Salinas Public Library raise just as much.

This may not get the Salinas library back open any sooner. That’s going to take a successful bond issue, one their City Council is already working on. But a sister library system would strengthen ties between libraries, and help draw statewide attention to local funding crises before they reach the padlock stage.

It shouldn’t have to be this way. There should be enough money to go around. But until more help arrives, libraries have got to get creative about helping each other.

With cross-borrowing privileges, dirt-poor Salinas kids may soon be able to check out Cannery Row from the Carmel library, as well they should be. But a kid in Carmel may then have to get it from San Francisco via interlibrary loan–and then a kid in San Francisco may have to wait even longer. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for these relatively overserved communities to have helped Salinas, possibly through a sister library system, back when there was still a Salinas to help?

Of course, the danger isn’t that the next young Steinbecks will have to take buses to borrow some Waugh. The danger, plainly, is that they’ll find something better to do. To paraphrase P.T. Barnum, there’s a Steinbeck born every minute. The trick of a literate society lies in cultivating them, carefully but generously, so that they actually grow up to be Steinbecks.


Copyright © 2005 SF Chronicle

David Kipen, who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, is reachable via dkipen@sfchronicle.com. The Friends of Salinas Public Library has a Web site–www.fospl.org/donations.htm–and a spokesperson reports, “Monetary gifts are always welcome! Your gift may be made in honor of someone special, or in memory of someone. All gifts to FOSPL are tax deductible. Please send your check payable to FOSPL to: Treasurer–FOSPL, 110 W. San Luis St., Salinas, CA 93901.” Donations may also be made via PayPal.

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