One For The Books
Caballero launches two campaigns to save Salinas’ libraries.
Thursday, February 10, 2005
Mayor Anna Caballero was all smiles when she took to the stage at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas last Thursday night—her excitement visibly difficult for her to contain. She made eye contact with fellow councilmembers just before the cameras rolled. Once the glare of the lights bore down on her, though, and an entire city—maybe even a nation—was looking to her for a plan that would save the city’s libraries from imminent extinction, she was nothing but business.
The plan Caballero unveiled is two-fold. For the short-term, an immediate fundraising effort called Rally Salinas has already begun. The goal is to raise half a million dollars through tax-deductible donations over the next 120 days to keep all three libraries open one day a week on a rotating basis through the end of the year. The fund got a generous jumpstart contribution of $25,000 by one anonymous donor, with $75,000 more promised from the same donor if residents would match it.
Libraries are slated to begin closing in less than 30 days, with all three closed within 60, but the new plan makes those dates fluid. The city council will undertake formal discussions of closure dates at the Feb. 15 council meeting. But March and April no longer appear to be the daunting deadlines they were a mere week ago.
“There’s no question we’ll have staff layoffs,” Caballero said, “but those original closing dates will not be required.”
Not even a shortfall in fundraising will mean the closures will happen soon. Should the fund not meet its goal, Caballero said, the libraries will continue to stay open on that rotating basis, at least for now.
“We’ll use whatever money we get to continue to keep the libraries open for as long as we can afford it,” she said.
They’ll stay open longer thanks to Josh Roberts, a 16-year-old Salinas High School junior who emptied his pockets at a library vigil last month when Mayor Caballero first asked residents to put their money where their mouths were.
“It was really outside of my means, but I had to meet the challenge. So I dumped out a total of $20 onto the lawn,” Roberts said.
Roberts, led by a group of UC Berkeley students who once called Salinas home, has since helped rally students from Everett Alvarez, Salinas High, North Salinas High and Alisal High to jump on the fundraising bandwagon.
“We’ll do whatever it takes, even if that means getting $1 a person,” said Roberts, who’s also part of a volunteer committee called Save the Libraries.
Caballero carried that “whatever it takes” attitude into the streets of Salinas last Friday, when she says she carried a can around with her to collect donations. “I raised $500,” she said. “And it was so clear to me that people really wanted to do something, whether it’s a dollar in a can or a $100 check. And I got both. Their support was absolutely inspirational.”
Caballero says her own check was one of the first to hit the fund.
But educating the public about the fund and its goals may well be Salinas’ biggest hurdle.
“We’ve taken a couple of calls from people wanting to know where to donate, and so we’re just referring people to the City. I don’t know where else to send them,” one librarian said.
Anyone wishing to contribute to the cause can send a check to Rally Salinas, P.O. Box 269, Salinas, CA 93902. The fund was established and is being held by the Community Foundation for Monterey County.
Last Saturday, it was business as usual at the John Steinbeck Library on Lincoln Avenue. The computer lab was filled to capacity. Some people were reading e-mail, others were cruising music sites, one was transfixed to a matchmaker site. Not one of them knew about Rally Salinas.
There is no collection can on any desk, no poster on any wall, no picketer out front, no sign of any resuscitation attempt. One small table does sit shrine-like near the front counter with a small sign that reads “Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries,” though none of the pamphlets has anything to do with the newborn plan.
“It’s going to be our biggest challenge,” Caballero said. “This will be absolutely a grassroots effort. We’ll be walking door to door, and we’ll have fliers printed in English and in Spanish.”
The lack of PR effort that many say plagued two library-saving measures on the ballot last November will not be to blame this time around, Caballero added.
“This plan has to work,” Roberts said. “I grew up in the Steinbeck Library. Its closure means limiting an entire generation’s access to ideas that came long before. Sure, the $500,000 and the libraries staying open just one day a week isn’t enough for the long-term, but it’s better than nothing, and it’s a good start.”
According to Caballero, a start is all Rally Salinas is intended to be—an immediate effort to keep the libraries open through the end of the year. That’s it. After that, without a plan, Salinas could find itself, one year from now, exactly where it is now—with no money for libraries, and total closures on the horizon. That’s where the second part of Caballero’s plan comes in.
This week, a group of community representatives will hold their first meeting to discuss long-term plans to keep libraries open for good. The so-called Blue Ribbon Committee’s members had yet to be named at press time. Their job will be to undertake a feasibility study.
“There are lots of questions we’ll have to find answers to,” said Caballero, who will chair the committee. Questions such as what kind of tax measure Salinas voters would support, in what increment, and when it could go out for a public vote.
“I’d vote for it,” said one woman coming out of Steinbeck Library last Saturday. “My husband and I just now are working out in our minds what we can afford to give for now. But in the long run, I’d vote for a tax to keep the libraries open for good.”
The specifics lie ahead in the not-too-distant future—but long after much brainstorming and collaborative effort has been expended by committee members and residents.
“I keep hearing about Oprah Winfrey,” Caballero said, “about how people have e-mailed her asking for her help. And I can’t help but be insulted and think, ‘Since when do we rely on others to provide us with things we feel are important?’”
There is no federal funding for libraries, Caballero pointed out: “People feel strongly that libraries are the cornerstone of democracy. And I agree. And yet, it’s up to local government to provide the funds for libraries. Our federal government spends billions of dollars on interesting hardware, but they don’t invest in our libraries.”
Still, the criticism hasn’t let up.
“I get angry e-mail every day, and I answer every one of them,” Caballero said. “And I hear repeatedly that John Steinbeck would be rolling in his grave. And I disagree. He would be writing about this. He wrote about inequalities in our country and communities to the point that people thought he was a Communist. He understood inequalities. He understood that there is just no shame in being poor.”
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Michael Messner is a Professor and Chair of Sociology at the University of Southern California. He grew up in Salinas, crediting his academic and professional accomplishments to a childhood replete with Salinas’ public education, from kindergarten through Hartnell College and a plethora of library experience along the way.
Messner sent what he called a modest donation. He also sent a letter. In it, he writes: “No amount of bake sales or points of light will solve this. The problem is systemic…only the rebuilding of an idea of public life that includes a commitment to health, education and literacy as a collective commitment to the common good will save our libraries...”
For now, for Salinas libraries, that commitment may well begin with a donation of money or time, rooted in a belief of what others deem inalienable rights but we now understand to be hard-earned valuable gifts.
“This is a time when activism needs to make a comeback,” Roberts said. “This isn’t a burden that belongs solely in the hands of any one person. It’s up to everyone to work together to keep the libraries open, no matter your standpoint. This isn’t a partisan issue; it’s a citizen issue.”