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Not enough bucks for books

Siskiyou County has two choices: decimate its library system or shutter it altogether.

June 21, 2010|Maria L. La Ganga

MCCLOUD, CALIF. — Kayla Burris, soon to turn 6, had three loose teeth, a library card and a deep need for information.

So she and her mother headed to the McCloud Branch Library on a recent Thursday afternoon, located "Franklin and the Tooth Fairy" in the neat stacks and settled down in the big blue recliner for a little research.

"We now know that the tooth fairy doesn't always leave money," said Stephanie Burris, who spends several hours a week with her children in the tiny library of this remote lumber town at the base of Mt. Shasta. "The tooth fairy might leave us a picture, a book, or crayons."

It's a good thing the Burrises came when they did. A week later, the McCloud library closed for good, a casualty of Siskiyou County's $3.7-million deficit. The rosiest scenario for the struggling library system here is an 83% budget cut, which would force the immediate closure of seven of the 11 1/2 libraries but leave enough money to operate the rest -- through December.

The worst-case scenario? The Board of Supervisors could adopt a budget Tuesday that would shutter the entire system by the end of the month, making Siskiyou -- an area bigger than Connecticut -- the only county in California without public libraries.

Local book lovers are scrambling to figure out a way to avert that disaster. The state librarian visited recently and pledged to help. Friends of the Library chapters in several of the scenic towns near the Oregon border have vowed to raise money.

But the choices facing county officials are stark. Can they afford to keep a skeletal library system open, even for a few months? Should they save the Hornbrook fire station near the county's northern edge? If they don't, ambulance response time for an accident on Interstate 5 will be 45 minutes. And how deep should the Sheriff's Department be cut? What should they do with the county museum?

"They're to the point where it's a crisis," said State Librarian Stacey Aldrich. "The only free Internet access available to 60% of Californians is through their public library. They use it for job hunting, resume writing, gaining computer skills, online homework help."

Libraries across the country are feeling the bite of bad economic times.

Last week Los Angeles officials moved ahead with plans to lay off an estimated 278 employees; more than one-third are library workers. The city's Board of Library Commissioners voted earlier this month to cut one day of service from every branch starting in July. Deep cuts to New York libraries spawned a 24-hour read-in at the Brooklyn Public Library.

But when it comes to library cuts, Siskiyou County seems to be in a class by itself.

McCloud is the former company town of the McCloud River Lumber Co., and it still bears the stamp of history. Rows of A-frame houses snuggle together like a litter of kittens.

The redwood-ringed library's 3,000 or so tomes lean heavily toward mystery novels, cookbooks and children's stories. There are two big recliners, a conference table, a selection of VHS tapes and a single public computer terminal.

Until the library shut its doors Thursday, there was always someone at the keyboard, and the waiting list ran long. Now McCloud -- with 1,500 residents and 1,000 library cards -- no longer has a free public computer.

But for some, it's not just about technology.

"It's hardly just a library. It's a socialization frequency," said Michael Van Cleemput, 69, a retired caregiver with the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society.

"The books are a sharing of ideas," he said. "The library is a collection of these sharings. But people who come here share with each other. In this small town, it's a crucial idea."

Emily Coulter, finance officer for the McCloud Community Services District, said the town owns the small clapboard building that houses the library and already had been paying about $2,300 a year for utilities.

In an effort to save the whole system, interim County Librarian Lisa Musgrove figured out how much each small city with an imminent closure would have to come up with to keep its library running and save part of the larger system through December. For McCloud, the price tag would be $7,000 more.

Could Coulter find it? "No, no," she said, shaking her head.

People are scrambling to figure out how to keep the branch open in some fashion. A local company has pledged a computer. The community services district could pay for an Internet hookup. The Friends of the Library can cover the phone bill. Volunteers could staff it.

"One of our biggest questions is, what does the county plan to do with the books?" Coulter said.

Nobody knows, said County Administrator Brian McDermott.

"I don't know how to close a library," he said.

In his three years on the job, McDermott has had to cut expenses by a third. One in four county employees has been laid off. The rainy-day fund is drying up. Every department faces cuts, but none as drastic as the library.

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