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Steinbeck country losing its libraries

By Associated Press
Published December 28, 2004

SALINAS, Calif. - Mary Jean Gamble organized the John Steinbeck historical archives, supervised the Steinbeck literature collection and ranks as an authority on Salinas history and genealogy.

After nearly 23 years with the Salinas Public Library, she may know more about The Grapes of Wrath or Cannery Row than anyone else in the author's hometown.

So how would Steinbeck have reacted to the news that the cash-strapped city is closing its libraries in the spring?

"He'd obviously be upset. He knew that literature can lift and elevate the spirit and enable humans to rise above any situation," Gamble said. "He probably even read some of the great literature at the Salinas library."

Facing record deficits, the City Council voted Dec. 14 to shut all three of Salinas' libraries, including the branches named after Steinbeck and labor leader Cesar Chavez. The blue-collar town of 150,000 could become the most populous U.S. city without a public library.

Salinas, nicknamed "salad bowl to the nation" for the lettuce and broccoli fields nearby, is the 1902 birthplace of the Nobel Prize-winning author of Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men . Steinbeck, who died in 1968, described the region as "pastures of heaven" and memorialized Salinas in his 1952 novel East of Eden .

But after voters Nov. 2 rejected a half-cent increase in the sales tax to preserve city services, Salinas has drawn the scorn of bibliophiles around the world. Editorials in newspapers from New Zealand to London have condemned the closings.

"It's embarrassing, not to mention inconvenient," said Ben Lopez, 69, a Salinas resident since 1945 who visits the Steinbeck branch at least twice a week. "Where else will I go to check out material - Prunedale?" he said, referring to a relatively spartan branch of the Monterey County Free Libraries system.

Because of Salinas' large number of poor farmworkers and immigrants, the city's libraries are popular destinations for people seeking citizenship primers, literacy courses, English-as-a-second language tapes, Internet access and afterschool programs. Roughly 1,900 people visit on an average day.

"The reality is that we live in a blue-collar community where people are struggling, and they're afraid of new taxes," Mayor Anna Caballero said. "I don't think they realized the enormity of what we were facing."

Because of cutbacks in state funding combined with rapid growth in Salinas and rising health care costs, the city cut $8-million from its budget in the last year and faces another $8-million cut from its $60-million budget for 2005-06. All three library branches are set to close by May or June.

[Last modified December 28, 2004, 00:24:09]


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