It started with just one book – and one woman’s outrage over the appalling state of the local high school library. Outdated and unloved, its books had been unavailable to students for a decade.
Today the entrance to Greenville High School is spilling over with more than 15,000 volumes donated by people from around the world. They hold the promise of inspiring readers, making readers out of nonreaders, and enriching the surrounding Indian Valley community, said Margaret Elysia Garcia, the library project’s instigator.
“Books can change lives,” she said. “A library can expose you to worlds you didn’t know existed.”
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A writer, former teacher and mother of two, Garcia had often been in the room called Library Media Center. Every time, she said, “a little bit of my heart was broken.”
The shelves were filled with adult romance and spy thrillers: no books by people of color and hardly any by women. Worse, the school had not had a full-time librarian since 1997, and kids had not been allowed to check out books since 2006.
Garcia appealed to the principals of Greenville High School and the Indian Valley Academy, a charter school that had recently moved into a wing of the high school building. They agreed to let Garcia solicit donations, and on June 7 she posted an appeal on her blog.
“Just. One. Book” described the sad state of the library and of Plumas County generally. The beauty of Indian Valley, at the cusp of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges, is matched by its poverty, she said. Unemployment tops 10 percent, two-thirds of the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and Latinos and American Indians represent 15 percent of the population.
“It’s a scary place for a mind to atrophy,” Garcia wrote.
She asked for donations of books for Indian Valley students: “Just one book. A real book. Something literary or fun – something that speaks to your truth, their truths. Something that teaches them something about the world and makes them feel less alone.”
Garcia linked her blog post to two online writers’ groups widely shared with other writers. The next day she woke up to 3,000 hits, including reposts by British writer Neil Gaiman and shares that connected the project to English comedian Eric Idle and Sherman Alexie, American Indian poet and writer.
Books began arriving almost immediately. Some came in envelopes containing just one book, some in boxes with as many as 30. Garcia and her team of volunteers, working daily at the renamed Indian Valley Collective Library, have logged more than 10,000 books with at least 5,000 to go.
The blog touched a chord with former Indian Valley residents and students as well as people across the country who grew up in small towns. Notes accompanying donations spoke of the role books had played in their lives and the importance of local libraries. Librarians wrote lamenting the conversion of libraries to computer centers. Parents and alumni of Copper Creek Camp, a local summer camp, joined the campaign to give back to Indian Valley.
“It touched the right people. Most couldn’t stop at one book,” said Centella Tucker, whose family owns a Greenville grocery store.
She was serving on the Plumas Unified School District Board in the 1990s, when budget cuts forced the district to eliminate high school librarians. She cast the lone “no” vote.
The demise of the school library paralleled the community’s slide from a vibrant valley with prosperous ranches and four major sawmills. All the mills are now closed, along with the local hospital. When the Plumas National Forest moved its Greenville District to Quincy, the county seat, it took with it the families committed to youths who volunteered in local schools, said Tucker.
“We lost a critical segment of our society, our economy and our culture,” she said.
School district officials mounted three serious efforts over 20 years to close Greenville High School. With seven different principals over the last 10 years, there was no one in leadership who loved the school, said Jerry Merica-Jones, now starting his second year as principal of the school, which has about 150 students. Each time, the community rose up in protest.
Revitalizing the library holds the hope of invigorating the community, said Tucker, one of many volunteers opening boxes and cataloging titles, authors and donors. The project has created a buzz throughout the valley that has already stimulated new ideas.
Among them is a strong interest in opening the school library to students’ families and beyond. Merica-Jones called it “the library of Indian Valley.” Students are already at work redesigning the library space while planning how to increase involvement from their parents and the community generally, said Sue Weber, Indian Valley Academy program director.
Along with the possibilities for direct engagement around books, Garcia envisions the library project helping to defuse the tension between long-established residents and newcomers from more urban areas that have often divided Indian Valley. Books, after all, benefit everyone, she said: “You have to be a real jerk to be against libraries.”
But her primary goal is literacy: Giving kids access to books that interest them and making readers out of nonreaders. She is using a bookstore format, arranging library sections by topics that include memoirs, culinary arts, makers and builders, and graphic novels – “700 of them for students intimidated by enormous blocks of text.”
With books stacked on every table and square foot of the floor, the Indian Valley Collective Library does not need more books, Garcia said. The project would welcome donations to purchase book racks, furniture and computers through an Amazon wish list or mailed to Indian Valley Academy, 117 Grand Street, Greenville, CA 95947.