"A Clean Well-Lighted Place," Ernest Hemingway's acclaimed short story, describes a poignant moment at a Spanish café at closing time. In a speech before fans at a recent Sacramento Library Foundation appearance, Indian American writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni borrowed the phrase to describe libraries: "A clean, well-lighted place with books."
Years ago when she was a new immigrant, her bus broke down in front of a library one night in Chicago. She stepped into the library to escape the cold. "May I help you?" the librarian asked. Divakaruni was given a copy of "The Great Gatsby" that night, and her career as one of America's finest new writers began to take shape.
I know how she felt. The Sacramento Public Library helped shape me. As a child I remember toting armloads of books home from the old Oak Park branch. That library fed my love of reading which, in turn, taught me a lot about writing and influenced my decision to become a journalist.
Sacramento libraries are more vibrant today than when I was a kid, and they are busier. The library system has nearly 800,000 cardholders more than half the population of Sacramento County. Patrons don't come just to check out books but to use a computer, find a job, hear lectures, get homework help, even publish their own literary work using the Central Library's Espresso Book Machine.
But the real value of the library is in the way it transforms the lives of the patrons it serves. I recently met four people whose lives were transformed by the library.
Humberto Robles was just 3 months old when his parents brought him to this country from Mexico. He spoke no English at home so he struggled in school, especially with reading. But Berto, as he is known, was determined to graduate from high school.
For a long time that goal seemed beyond his reach. He failed the English part of the high school exit exam five times. A teacher told him about the special online programs available at the library that allow students to take practice tests again and again and again. And that's what Berto did, taking the test over and over again on the computers at Del Paso Heights library branch. He credits the library with helping him pass the high school exit exam. Last year he graduated from Rio Linda High School, on time, the first in his family to earn a high school diploma.
Marina Gallegos and her husband, Ernie, are both profoundly deaf. But their daughters, 3-year-old Isaura and 3-month-old Youvella, can hear. Because her parents are deaf, Isaura is adept at sign language but her speech is delayed.
Preschool story hour at the North Sacramento-Hagginwood branch has become one of the family's most important connections to the hearing world. Since her parents started bringing Isaura to the library six months ago, Isaura has come out of her shell, branch supervisor Nicole Powell says.
Isaura speaks now, softly, hesitantly, but she speaks. She even dances and sings songs. And, because of Isaura, Powell has introduced American Sign Language into her storytelling at the library.
In a written note to me Marina explained: "Sometimes my daughter asked me to use my voice while reading a book to her. I told her that I'm really very sorry that I can't speak I can read for her using my sign language and I told her I can take her here (to the library) so she can hear Nicole speak."
When his third-grade class recently made the short walk to the Del Paso Heights branch, Zachery Sherade's teacher had to remind him to watch where he was going. The 8-year-old's face was often buried in a book, even as he walked.
Zachery and his classmates make the trek to the library branch about once a month. One morning, 30 eager 8- and 9-year-olds, their faces turned upward, sat transfixed as they listened to branch supervisor Tim Tomasik tell them the story of Taily'Po, the swamp monster.
Their teacher, Marcia Matchette, credits "Mr. Tim," as he is affectionately known, for helping to boost reading scores for the students in her class. Most students have jumped a full year in reading. Many, including Zachery, are now tackling fourth-grade-level books. He started third grade designated as a special-needs student. After visits to the library where he fell in love with reading, he's now at grade level and was named most-improved student.
"De De De " Steve Tafoya was stumped. "What's that word? I don't know that word," the 53-year-old Army veteran told his reading tutor. "De-ci-sion," Anna Ramirez broke down the syllables slowly, patiently, and Tafoya continued reading.
When his three sons were very young, Tafoya, a single parent, used to pretend to read to them. He would look at the pictures and tell a story. But when his sons got older, they caught on. "Dad, that's not what it says," and their father admitted that he could not read.
A veteran of Desert Storm, Tafoya says he got into the Army only because a recruiter felt sorry for him and filled out his questionnaire. Tired of asking people to read for him, Tafoya signed up for adult literacy classes at the Sacramento Public Library. In the year that he has been paired with Ramirez, Tafoya's reading skills have improved from a second-grade level to a sixth-grade level.
He beamed with pride recently, explaining how he was able to read well enough to take the test to renew his driver's license with minimal assistance. He says he had to ask the clerk for help to read just three words.
For the first time in his life, Tafoya is reading for pleasure. His goal: to read Shakespeare some day.
Berto, Isaura, Zachery and Steve four stories plucked randomly from the annals of the Sacramento Public Library. There are hundreds, thousands more. Despite their transformative powers, libraries are easily dismissed as frills when local governments plan their budgets. But Berto's high school diploma is not a frill. Neither is Isaura's singing, Zachery's academic success or Steve's ability to read. It may be difficult to measure, but the library's value is immense, as infinite as the human capacity to learn and grow.
SACRAMENTO PUBLIC LIBRARY BY THE NUMBERS
Library cardholders: 791,497
Area served: 974 square miles
2012-13 budget: $33,130,023
Annual visits: 4,054,689
Website visits: 4,252,450