Little libraries, big challenges
Butte County’s small-town libraries are all around 100 years old, but they’re still fighting to survive
Barbara St. John lives on Black Bart Road, in the foothills east of Oroville. The nearest fire station is at Robinson Mill, a crossroads community about five miles away. Because of the county’s budget crunch, the station, along with other foothills stations, was proposed for closing during winter months.
This concerned St. John sufficiently for her to join the legions of people filling county supervisors’ chambers in Oroville on March 3. Cuts had been proposed in virtually all county services, including public health, probation and the library, but St. John knew what she didn’t want cut and wasn’t shy about saying so.
“I love libraries,” she told the supervisors, “but I’d close the libraries before I’d close a fire station.”
This seemed to be the prevailing attitude at the meeting, though several speakers did talk of the importance of social-service programs. However, it was left to Derek Wolfgram, director of the Butte County Library, to be the lone person speaking out in support of libraries and all they mean to American democracy.
Acknowledging that the public’s safety was indeed extremely important, he nevertheless reminded listeners that libraries are not luxuries, especially at a time of economic turmoil and high unemployment. They provide access to computers for job seekers, for example, and educational resources for people interested in improving their skills and knowledge.
“I absolutely do not want to live in a community where crime is left unchecked,” he said. “I also don’t want to live in a place without positive opportunities for children and adults to lift themselves up, particularly given the hardships individuals are already facing in this economy. Libraries are essential services, today more than ever, not only for education and enlightenment, but also for economic development.
“Good communities require a balance of mandated services and those that contribute to the quality of life for citizens.”
Whether Butte County will maintain that balance is unclear. The supervisors made no final decision March 3 and were scheduled to take up the matter again on Tuesday (March 24) and later, during May budget meetings. (See Newslines, page 11, for an account of the Tuesday meeting.)
The proposal the supervisors were considering called for lopping about $550,000 from the library’s budget, with the loss of eight filled and three vacant positions and major cutbacks in library hours, which are already limited.
Under the March 3 proposal, county-funded branch hours were expected to decrease from 42 to 30 in Chico and Oroville. (The city of Chico contributes $170,000 annually to keep the Chico branch open an additional 25 hours.)
No decrease was anticipated in Paradise because library supporters there have raised $42,000 to keep that branch open on its current schedule, but the three smallest libraries were expected to have significant cuts: Gridley from 35 to 24 hours; Durham from 21 to just six hours; and Biggs from 12 to six hours.
In addition, the county’s cuts in the library budget could generate others. The county’s funding agreement with the city of Chico requires that the county fund the library for a minimum of 35 hours; anything less than that would violate the agreement and put the city’s share at risk. “We’d be in a bit of a precarious spot with the city,” Wolfgram said in a phone interview.
In addition, the library receives about $75,000 annually in funding from the state of California, but there’s a “maintenance-of-effort” clause in the agreement with the state, and any decrease in funding means the county is no longer eligible for the money. “That’s another couple of jobs,” Wolfgram said.
Can a library serve its purpose in just six hours a week? Not really. Sure, users whose schedules happen to coincide with the library’s can pop in and check out books, but that’s only one of many functions a library provides.
Since 1833, when the good people of Peterborough, N.H., established the first town library open to all citizens at no cost, libraries have been the closest things Americans have to secular temples of knowledge and enlightenment. And they are essential institutions in a democratic society because they provide the information that allows citizens to make informed decisions—all citizens, rich and poor alike, including those who cannot afford to purchase books or lack access to the Internet.
If you think libraries are declining in use or importance, consider this: The Butte County Library anticipates that, if the current schedule stays in place through June, library users will make more than 820,000 visits to its six branches this fiscal year and check out nearly a million items. They will also make use of library computers nearly 122,000 times. That makes the library far and away the most heavily utilized government service in the county.
To get a sense of what cutbacks will mean to the library, we decided to take a look at the three smallest branches, where the hours will be most severely limited. We wanted to learn something about their long histories (all date back to the early 20th century), their roles in their communities, and the impacts the cuts in hours will have.
We started with the smallest branch, Biggs, which also happens to be the oldest library building in the county that’s still in use.Biggs Branch
According to a short history of the Biggs library written in 2008 as part of its centennial celebration, the library got its start in 1906, when residents of Biggs (pop. about 700 at the time) applied for and received a $5,000 Carnegie grant to build a library.
The two-story brick building at 464 B St., in downtown Biggs, opened in April 1908 and has been in continuous use as a library ever since. Its original librarian earned $20 per month. The first floor has always housed the library, but the basement floor has had several uses over the years, including serving as City Hall for a time.
Today it is the Teen Center, a community-sponsored hangout spot with computers, games and study areas—an excellent complement to the library upstairs, which currently is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1–5p.m.
“A lot of kids come into the library to do their homework,” Cynthia Pustejovsky, the branch librarian for Biggs, Durham and Gridley, said during an interview at the Gridley branch. That’s true for all three branches, she added, but in Biggs the library’s proximity to the local schools and the Teen Center makes it even more valuable for this reason.
Of all the libraries in the county, this one most feels like a temple of knowledge. With its high ceiling, thick brick walls and tall, encased windows, it seems built to last forever, and one can feel a full century of use in the very atmosphere of the place.
The Biggs library operated as a city-run agency until 1964, when it became part of the county library system. The city continues to own the building and maintain it. Currently, the branch has 7,650 titles and provides two public-use computers with Internet access. There are 275 patrons, of which 137 are children 12 and younger, and the library serves a population of about 2,000. Kay Curry is the part-time staffer.
This won’t be the first time the library has faced budget cuts. In the early 1980s, the county was forced to close the three smaller branches altogether and limit the hours of operation at the larger branches.
Biggs refused to let its library close. For the next 15 years, the members of the Biggs Women’s Club recruited and organizing volunteers to keep it open one afternoon a week. In 1998, the budget improved, enabling the county to assign a staff person at the library two afternoons a week. In 2007 that was expanded to three afternoons.
But once again budget cuts threaten the library. In response, the community is organizing a Friends of the Biggs Library group, hoping to regenerate the kind of community support the Women’s Club provided all those years ago.
So far only seven people have joined, however. “It’ll probably take about a year to get that going,” Pustejovsky said—but maybe less if library hours are cut and residents decide they once again won’t put up with it.Durham Branch
In 1914, just a year after Butte County established its library system, the people of Durham started a branch for townsfolk to use. It was located inside a drug store at the corner of Campbell Street and what was then Market Street (now the Midway).
The store was hit by a fire in 1915, and the library was moved to a hardware store at Durham and Market streets. But that facility had problems too, including a leaky roof, so the library was moved to the building housing the courthouse and jail.
According to an anonymous history of the library written in the early 1970s, there was no real separation between the courthouse and the library. Apparently there were times when testimony was thought to be offensive to librarian Grace Brown’s ears, so the library was closed during those portions of the trials.
In 1958 the library moved to the Durham Memorial Hall, on the Midway, where it remained until November 1976, when it moved to its current location at 2545 Durham-Dayton Highway, about a half-mile west of downtown.
From the outside this is a nondescript cinderblock building, but inside it’s quite pleasant, thanks to large windows on the east side that make the 3,500-square-foot room seem even larger than it is. The library holds about 10,000 volumes without seeming crowded, and there’s a raised area in the rear with easy chairs and a large table for relaxed reading and study. There are four public-use computers.
Like the Biggs library, the Durham branch once stayed open for several years without funding, by relying on volunteers. Such enthusiasm tells Pustejovsky “they really want a library there.”
The Durham library is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12–7 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. It offers a Storytime for preschool children on Thursdays as well as weekly movies shown on a large television screen. And, like all the libraries in the county system, it offers access to all the holdings at the other branches.
The only paid full-time staffer in Durham is Kristi Williford, who spends most of her time there but also works in the Gridley branch. By the same token, Pustejovsky, who is based in Gridley, comes to Durham regularly after the Gridley library closes to fill in for Williford from 6–7 p.m. Pustejovsky lives in Chico, so it’s on her way home.
Karen Read, a volunteer at the library, said it gets tremendous support from the community. Just that week, she said, a group of Girl Scouts visited and planted flowers outside and cleaned and dusted inside.
The library means a great deal to everyone in the community, she said, but it’s especially important for kids. Indeed, on the afternoon the CN&R visited, all of the several visitors to the library were teenagers.Gridley Branch
Like Biggs, Gridley once had a Carnegie library funded by a foundation set up by Andrew Carnegie, the ultra-rich steel baron of the late 19th century. It was one of 2,800 such libraries in the United States, including two others in Butte County, in Chico and Oroville.
According to a brief history written by Cynthia Pustejovsky in 2008, the library was dedicated on March 15, 1916, and Emma Sligar was hired as both librarian and janitor at a salary of $30 a month. By 1923 her salary had risen to $60, “and a janitor was hired, evidence that the community valued the services offered by the library.”
In its early years the library had 1,585 volumes, plus 240 books owned by Butte County. There were 347 card holders.
Today the library has some 19,000 books and 5,581 card holders.
By 1970, the community realized the library was soon going to be too small to meet Gridley’s needs, so it set out to build a new facility. There were numerous setbacks, including court challenges, but after about a decade construction of the new building at Spruce and Haskell streets began.
Once the building was finished, volunteers put in the landscaping and moved the library’s contents into their new home. The site was dedicated on March 5, 1983.
It’s the most modern of the three smaller libraries—and looks it. Inside, a vaulted ceiling with a skylight at the top gives it a spacious, open feeling, and the building is more than large enough to hold the library’s 19,000 volumes. There’s also an adjoining conference room.
Open weekdays (except Wednesdays) from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Wednesdays from 12–7 p.m., the library has five one-hour computers and a single 15-minute computer used for checking e-mail. Pustejovsky said demand for the computer is so great that sometimes there’s a two-hour wait to get on.
Unlike Biggs and Durham, many of whose residents live outside of town, most of the Gridley library’s card holders live in town, so it gets a great deal of use, especially by students after school who use it for doing homework. Pustejovsky has a phone at the check-out counter that she allows kids to use to call their parents when they’re ready to go home.
Her second full-time employee, Lori Lute, works exclusively at the Gridley library. Pustejovsky was hesitant to speculate on what would happen to her staff if library hours were cut, though obviously some employees would either lose their jobs or be transferred to other libraries. Nor could she say how library schedules would be realigned.
“The library director [Wolfgram] has worked out some scheduling alternatives that he’ll be presenting to the Board of Supervisors,” she said. But there was no question, she added, that the hours of operation in Durham and Biggs would be “very limited. … Everybody is sitting on pins and needles here. It’s hard to make plans.”
Pustejovsky grew up in Oroville, and as a child she often went to the Carnegie library there, especially during hot summer months. She would find something to read and go down to the basement, where it was always cool and quiet, and lose herself in the magic of books. The experience had much to do with her becoming a librarian, she said.
As a lover of libraries, Pustejovsky was saddened to think that they were going to be less available to the people in her three communities. “All of the branches are sanctuaries,” she said. “They’re places where people come to meet and visit with each other.”
Lately, though, she’s noticed them being used for more immediate purposes. “People are coming in and applying for jobs online, writing résumés, applying for unemployment insurance,” she said, attributing the trend to the bad economy. “More and more every day. They’re dropping Internet service at home. Many tell me they’re also dropping TV service.”
Many of her card holders don’t have cars, she said, and are dependent on friends for transportation. “If the library is only open six hours a week, and you’re dependent on someone to take you, you might not be able to make use of it,” she said.
She’s putting much of her hope in the history of the three libraries—how, in the past, the communities have stepped forward to keep the libraries open.
“We have wonderful support from all three communities,” she said.