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03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 15, 2011

Public Library Saved: 15,000 People Celebrate

Salinas, CA -- October 5, 2009 -- On Sunday, September 27, 15,000 people--that's ten percent of the town's population--turned out to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Salinas Public Library, and the remarkable story of what a community's devotion to its library can accomplish. The library served thousands of pieces of birthday cake, sealed a time capsule containing "Letters to the Future" imagining the future of the library and the written word, and reenacted the Read-In that saved the library. It was a day of celebration, and the massive attendance was particularly poignant in light of recent history.

The Salinas Public Library, the home library of Nobel-Prize-winning author John Steinbeck, made international news in 2004-5 when, due to budget cuts, the Salinas City Council voted to close the library. What ensued remains the stuff of library legend: An international outcry, an outpouring of support from the community, prominent authors journeying to
Salinas to join students in all-night vigils on the library's lawn. People wrote letters, made phone calls, gave money, and remembered the library in their wills. In November 2005, 60 percent of voters in this mostly working-class community, where many residents are not native English speakers, agreed to a half-cent sales tax for the next ten years to support the library as chief among the city's vital services. One of the most dramatic events in recent library history ended in a memorable triumph that remains a touchstone for communities across the country struggling to keep their libraries open in challenging times. The saving of the Salinas Public Library was featured in the documentary film, The Hollywood Librarian.

The Salinas Public Library is now a thriving example of what a library can mean to a community, and it continues to break records, to break paradigms--and to break rules:

  • The Library Reaches Out, Big-Time: Over the last two years, the library issued a library card to every student in Salinas--over 32,000 library cards--waiving the requirement for a parent's signature. In a cooperative agreement, the local school districts accepted responsibility for the students, a groundbreaking idea in the library world, and the key to student access on a massive scale.
  • The Library as a Place of Play: The Salinas Public Library offers teens alternatives to the mall and the street--a space where teens can hang out and play. The John Steinbeck Library's Teen Lounge is centered on the library's flat-screen TV, where daily a group a teenagers can be seen playing Xbox and Nintendo Wii games, provided through a partnership with Game Crazy, a videogame store. On Saturday, the sounds of cheering rocked the library as a cluster of 20 teenagers competed in a Super Smash Bro's Brawl, a contest with prizes led by a local game store. The lounge is surrounded by books, face-out, luring teens to read.
  • The Library as a Site of Creation: The library's Digital Arts Lab opened in 2008, and offers library patrons access to a full range of professional digital creation software--including Final Cut Pro 2, the video editing software used by professional Hollywood film editors--and regular classes in digital creation. Soon the library will launch a digital storytelling station.
  • The City as a Library: On the eve of the100th Birthday Bash, in the house where John Steinbeck was born, Library Director Elizabeth Martinez, Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue and a representative of Assembly Member Anna Caballero convened a special salon to reimagine Salinas as a "City of Letters" and explore the creation of a Literary District, an innovative model of economic development stretching between the National Steinbeck Center and the John Steinbeck Library. In the next year, the Salinas Public Library and the National Steinbeck Center will collaborate to explore this idea further, funded by a leadership grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

There's still next year's budget to think about for the Salinas Public Library, and if you would like to help out, please visit their website at: www.salinaspubliclibrary.org.

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