PALMDALE — It takes no more than a drive around this desert town on a Saturday afternoon to get a sense of its identify: kids at soccer practice, kids roller-blading, kids at the mall.
Next year it could be: kids reading.
Speakers Monday celebrated the city's "youthful community" at groundbreaking ceremonies for the Palmdale Youth Library. When it opens next summer, the 10,000-square-foot, $2.7-million facility will be only the second in the Palmdale library system and will serve children from toddlers to 15.
Only two other libraries in California--one in Santa Cruz and the other in Palo Alto--have children's services in a separate building. Traditionally, libraries provide children's sections within their regular branches.
The library, being paid for mostly with the city's redevelopment funds, is a worthwhile investment in a community where about one-third of the population is under 15, politicians said.
"This is something that will cater to our youth," Mayor James Ledford told about three dozen city officials and residents gathered for the ceremonies. "It's a place where recreation and learning can work hand in hand."
Said Councilman David Myers: "This is one of those times when living within our budgets has brought us something new and innovative."
A new library was long overdue in the growing desert community. But the idea of building one specially for children had less to do with intent than with budget constraints.
Palmdale's only library was built 20 years ago for a population of 35,000. But in the last decade and a half, the population more than tripled--partly because of an influx of young families lured to the area by new, affordable housing.
Today, about a sixth of the library's 12,000 square feet is dedicated to children's services. About 30,000 of the library's 100,000 items are for children, and last year children checked out items 275,000 times, compared with 261,000 times by adults.
"Some of our biggest users are underage," said Linda Storsteen, Palmdale's city librarian. "We want to make a statement that children and books are important--central enough to make a building come together."
With about a million people walking through the small library each year and the shelves filled to capacity, even with about 40% of the items checked out on any given day, some form of expansion was needed, Storsteen said. A committee was formed last year to study possibilities.
The group came up with various ideas--most of them financially unfeasible.
One ambitious plan called for a 40,000-square-feet new main library that would have cost $8 million. Another called for a storefront branch that would have increased the library system's $1.4 million operational budget to almost $3 million.
"We felt this wasn't the right time to ask the taxpayers for more money," said Storsteen.
Instead, the team conceived the idea of simply moving its children's services into a new facility.
That meant the building would be paid for mostly by the existing community redevelopment funds. Meanwhile, the library's operational budget would not increase because staffers from the main library would operate the children's facility. Also, old materials would simply be moved and new purchases would be minimal.
Among the features, the new library will have a homework center, computer lab and a read-aloud area.
Palmdale's innovation could prove a creative way for municipalities to carry out expansions, said Richard Hall of the California State Library, a government agency that oversees grants for such projects.
In any given year, hundreds of projects statewide could be carried out. Requests by municipalities for some of those projects amount to a few hundred million dollars. This year, however, the state dished out only about $12 million in grants. Only an additional $1.3 million in a federal program--discontinued last year--is left.
Hall said Palmdale's facility, indeed, will be rare--but not the city's motivation for building it.
"I don't think [the idea of a children's library] happens by design," he said. "Typically, there's some space problem."
Some disadvantages--like limited or no adult materials for parents at the children's facilities--have been outweighed by the numerous advantages of having a children's haven, according to Santa Cruz and Palo Alto librarians.
"Having a separate space really works well. It gets children into the library," said Anne Turner, director of libraries for Santa Cruz County. "What kids that age want is to have something that belongs to them."
"It's really considered a community treasure," Maya Spector, senior librarian for the Palo Alto Children's Library, said of that facility, established in 1940.
After Monday's ceremonies in Palmdale, some parents attending a crowded children's program in the present library looked forward to a bigger place.
"It's funny. I was just saying 'God, it's so small,' " said Jeannette Jones, 34, who was there with son Dustin, 5. A new facility is "very needed just because there are so many kids growing up in this area."