Despite funding cuts, a library in Salinas thrives

A brother and sister look through picture books in a children’s area sponsored by First 5, as their grandfather watches them. The kids’ area has a live feed from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, unique to this library. Photo: Melissa Flores/California Health Report

Salinas has a new library — and it does a lot more than lend out books. Since reopening after a year-long $3 million construction project, the library is buzzing seven days a week, a center of community life in a neighborhood whose residents have few resources and a shortage of public services.

The renovation of the building and the mission of Cesar Chavez Library comes at a time when many library systems in the state are struggling to keep their doors open. In 2011, state budget cuts lowered the amount of money given to libraries. Local county and city cuts have also hit libraries hard at a time when they are seeing an uptick in visitors.

When the library reopened its doors, after using a space across the street for 13 months, residents lined up around the block in pouring rain to get a glimpse of the new facility, which was enlarged by 7,000 square feet.

The library has 1,200 visitors a day and every child in the city of Salinas has a library card as part of a partnership with the school districts.

The eastside library serves its patrons with books, DVDs, magazines and many of the traditional services libraries across the state offer. But the library staff also offers some unorthodox resources.

One corner of the library is devoted to videogames. Four Apple computers contain digital media software programs. Students who come to the library after school are offered a free snack and tutors help them with their homework. The library has a new community room, complete with a kitchen, that will be available free of charge for nonprofit community groups to use. The neighborhood did not have a community space for such meetings until the renovation was completed.

The library even has a soccer team that plays in a field outside the newly-expanded building when the weather is nice.

“The families couldn’t afford cable, so when the World Cup was on, they watched it online,” said Carissa Purnell, the technology manager at the library.

The children and their families showed up in jerseys to root for Mexico. Through the conversations with of them, she found many of the children couldn’t play soccer because the league costs were prohibitive to them or their families worked as migrants so the kids were living in other places during the season.

In the Alisal part of Salinas, the families are 96 percent Hispanic and 100 percent of the students enrolled in local schools qualify for the free or reduced lunch program, Purnell said.

Working with a variety of partners, the library put together a soccer program for the students. Students from California State University, Monterey Bay volunteered as coaches. The kids have jerseys of their own now, and Purnell said the college students serve as mentors to students who often don’t see a university education in their future.

The library staff started a music program so students can learn about native instruments and musical traditions such as “corridos,” a type of Mexican song that tells a story. There is a programming club for students who want to learn how to build websites or write code. Healthy after school snacks are provided to students who sometimes spend hours in the library, especially when school is out.

“They were hungry and when their blood sugar drops, they were not on their best behavior,” Purnell said. “Instead of disciplining them, we decided to feed them.”

They applied for a grant and worked with some of the local agricultural growers as well as the school lunch program to provide fresh fruit or vegetables for the students.

It’s a long way from 2005, when the city shut down all three libraries due to a lack of funding.

“The community chose to tax themselves and to keep them open seven days a week,” Purnell said, of sales tax Measure V. “It really reflects what the community wanted.”

In November, local voters reiterated their desire for library services by renewing the tax with Measure E by 75 percent of the vote. The new measure does not have a sunset clause written in.

The California Library Association, an advocacy group that supports libraries, lists some of the ways libraries are especially important to residents in a bad economy.

Their website notes that 99.3 percent of libraries offer free wi-fi, with 90.1 percent providing access to online job databases. In a survey, CLA found that 64 percent of library users said the library provides the only free computer or Internet access in their communities. More than two-thirds of libraries offer homework assistance to students. In some communities the public library has become more integral to education as school districts have laid off school librarians and closed on-campus resources.

The Friends of the Salinas Library, a fundraising group that supports the three libraries, donated $10,000 and works tirelessly on getting grants for programs.

Mary Alicia McRae, secretary of the group who writes many of the grant requests, said the Friends also raised money to support the homework center. They are raising money through December for the library system’s “Snappy Mobile,” a van that serves as a bookmobile that goes out to local hospitals, schools or other areas to bring materials to children.

Silvia Vega, a CSUMB student, is one of the interns who works in the homework center five days a week.

“For the majority of them, it is extra help,” Vega said, of the kindergarten through sixth-grade students with whom she works. “Some don’t understand it or their parents don’t understand it. A lot of it is helping them through the process.”

She said having the dedicated space in the new library helps keep the students on task.

Alberto Murillo is a substitute teacher who uses the library to work with students after school. “Most of them don’t have the Internet or computers at home,” he said. “They have a lot of math and reading-based games here. Students have access to the resources.”

Elizabeth Martinez, the director of library and community services for Salinas, said exposure to books and reading material remains key. She noted in looking around the sparse shelves in the children’s area that they were full on the day the library reopened.

“I saw one child with a big stack of books and asked why he was checking out so many at once,” she said. “He said because they might not be there when he comes back.”

A second-grader named Michelle is one of the students who is in the library almost every day. On a recent weekday, she shadowed Purnell around the library. She said she wants to be a librarian when she grows up because she wants to help people. Her favorite thing about the library isn’t the videogames, snacks or soccer, she said. It’s the books.

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