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Pomona library, home to Laura Ingalls Wilder books, may close

Employees of Pomona's only municipally funded library were told this month that the Garey Avenue institution would close Aug. 15 because of budget problems.

July 01, 2012|By Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times
  • Adelina Celis reads a storybook to her 5-year-old daughter, Jennifer Moreni, left, at the Pomona Public Library. Officials have been desperate to trim the city’s $79-million general fund budget, and the library -- which houses Laura Ingalls Wilder's original handwritten manuscript of “Little Town on the Prairie” -- was put on the chopping block.
Adelina Celis reads a storybook to her 5-year-old daughter, Jennifer Moreni,… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

From Mansfield, Mo., a letter arrived tinged with envy.

"You make good use of your library I am sure," Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in May 1950. "How I would have loved it when I was young, but I was far from a library in those days."

The beloved author had struck up a correspondence with the Pomona Public Library's children's librarian, who was a fan. Letters were exchanged often, and Wilder even donated her original handwritten manuscript of "Little Town on the Prairie" to a room named in her honor.

But that faded relic, along with Wilder's books and the works of thousands of other noted authors, may soon be lost to the public. Employees of Pomona's only municipally funded library were told this month that the Garey Avenue institution would close Aug. 15 because of budget woes.

Officials have been desperate to trim the city's $79-million general fund budget, and the library was put on the chopping block.

"There's just not a lot of fat to cut anymore," library director Bruce Guter said. "We're desperate to find some way of avoiding closing, but it's simply a matter of the dollars."

The fate of the library, however, could change. Guter has been frantically trying to find a way to run the operation on $400,000 — a figure offered by the city. Pomona's library currently has a budget of $1.6 million and is open just 26 hours a week.

He has met with several library directors, including Robert Karatsu, who heads up Rancho Cucamonga's two library branches, which are open for 101 hours a week at a cost of $3.9 million.

Although Pomona's city manager raised the possibility that Rancho Cucamonga might operate the library, Karatsu said that wasn't likely. He and other library directors have only looked at the budget and offered advice on how to keep the library open.

"As a neighboring jurisdiction, we wanted to see if there is something we can do to try to help," Karatsu said.

Guter said a solution is needed quickly, before the city is forced to recall all books in circulation and end relationships with vendors.

Residents have rallied behind the library, insisting that city officials find a way to save a place that offers free computer use and a children's summer reading program and houses the famous Frasher's Fotos postcard collection.

"Pomona's not great resource-wise," said Ishmael Chavez, 22, who grew up in the city. "You'd think a library would be the worst thing to remove."

Maribel Quesada, 34, holds out hope that somehow the library will be spared. She has taken her 4-year-old son Ethan to the weekly story hour since he was a few months old. It's a free venue that offers air-conditioning, social activities and a chance to get out of the house, she said.

"Not having a library in your own city?" Quesada said. "That's just weird."

Resident John Alvarez said he would not have found his job as a construction worker without the library.

"I'd probably still be looking, to tell you the truth," said the 33-year-old, who used the computer lab to hunt for work. Now he visits to research courses in construction management.

Pomona's first library opened in 1887 with 400 books. It operated out of a single room in a building and was financially supported by the local floral association. By 1902 it was funded by the city and the $2 annual membership fee was waived. A grant from Andrew Carnegie led to the construction of a library building the following year. Circulation jumped to 34,000.

It survived the Great Depression, although staff pay was cut and fewer books were bought. "Any book you haven't read is a new book," was the library's slogan at the time.

In 1965, the collection moved into a new 57,000-square-foot building in the Civic Center. About 75% of the city's 150,000 residents are registered borrowers.

In recent years library hours have been reduced, and it is now open four days a week, beginning at noon. Still, employees said they never believed it would shut down altogether.

"All of a sudden to hear it was going to be closed …We just felt like someone had died," said Rosa Samson, who works part time at the circulation desk.

Samson, who knows many library users by name, said she loves the job she's held for seven years. She savors such moments as when a father and daughter complained that a spotty Internet connection was preventing them from looking up information aboutMartin Luther King Jr.

Samson suggested the children's section, which has plenty of books on the civil rights leader. "They looked at me, and it was like a light bulb went on over their head," she recalled.

Since the news of the possible closure hit, it's been business as usual and the checkout line still gets its share of new member applications. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, dozens of patrons pored over novels, families camped out at tables with picture books and children skipped along the aisles.

It was a scene that probably would have touched an author whose pioneer life is still on display at the library. The collection includes a letter written in 1961 by Rose Wilder Lane — four years after the death of her legendary mother — with this line: "Of all the recognition that my mother received, nothing pleased her so much as yours and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Room in the Pomona Library."

corina.knoll@latimes.com

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