I recently visited one of the holy shrines of the printed word, the ornate, wood-paneled reading room of the New York Public Library. In its hushed silence, I was paying my respects to something that's been very important in my life.
I grew up on a small cul-de-sac in south Sacramento. The bookmobile that showed up in front of Sutterville Elementary School was one of the big events of the week, an opening to a wider world. So were the books that I checked out of the Belle Cooledge Library, books that told of submarines 20,000 leagues under the sea and spaceships going to Mars.
Just as the library was my link to a larger world in my early years, so it became an important link to my new community when I moved to Dunsmuir 17 years ago. I soon learned that volunteers are the lifeblood of a small-town community. They staff our fire department and help keep our small library going. I joined the volunteers who kept the library open in the evenings, and in that way met other folks who shared my passion for books and ideas.
In a town with just under 2,000 residents, a library does more than circulate printed material. The library, like our one grocery store and hardware store, is a place where folks of all stripes, young and old, rich and poor, mix and mingle. It's where down-and-outers come to find refuge in a clean, well-lighted place; where kids from low-income families of which there are quite a few here can get access to the Internet; and where the rest of us can read the Sunday New York Times, check out a video and share the latest gossip.
The library offers programs with local authors and a monthly book club. In a quiet, small town like this, on a cold winter evening, a spirited discussion of "On the Road" is about as good as it gets.
Two years ago, due to a shrinking budget, the county cut off funding for its branch libraries. Since then we've been keeping ours open through donations to the local Friends of the Library and some support from the city. Other branches up here in Siskiyou County have had to reduce their hours or use more volunteer help to maintain their hours, but we've been spared that so far. We're fortunate that the Dunsmuir library gets strong support from the community, even from those who never set foot in it.
But surviving on year-to-year donations is not a good way to sustain a library, so last June we put a measure on the ballot for a local parcel tax that would have kept the library's doors open for at least another 10 years. We went door to door and made countless phone calls, but the measure failed on a 60 percent vote, "failed" because 66 percent approval from voters is required for local tax measures under provisions of Proposition 13.
State Sen. Lois Wolk recently introduced a bill, SCA 7, that would place a measure on the state ballot asking voters if they're willing to lower that threshold to 55 percent for voter approval of special taxes or bonds to fund libraries. If that law had been in effect last June, our library would now have dependable revenues and a secure future for another 10 years. As it is now, we'll have to keep scrambling for dollars until, we hope, Wolk's bill receives the required two-thirds vote of both the state Senate and Assembly, and gets voter approval as a constitutional amendment on a statewide ballot in 2014.
It's the best hope for the long-term future of our library, and for many other libraries throughout the state. Research by the California State Library over the past 20 years indicates that many libraries in California have suffered the same fate as ours, falling just short of the needed two-thirds majority to secure local funding.
Other bills wending their way through the Legislature would also lower the bar to 55 percent for local taxes for police and fire departments, transportation and school districts. It's possible that, together with the Wolk bill, they could all be bundled into one single measure before being put on a statewide ballot.
The modern library movement began back in 1849, when New Hampshire became the first state to pass a law authorizing its towns to raise money to fund public libraries. I'm guessing folks didn't like paying taxes in those days any more than we do now, but the state's leaders assumed its citizens would be willing to make some financial sacrifice for the good of their communities and the fledgling experiment in self-government.
So here we are in 2013 fighting for one of the progressive reforms of the mid-19th century. More than a century and a half later, do we still have anything like their selfless and civic-minded spirit? The fate of Wolk's bill will help us answer that question.