Once Doomed, Salinas Public Library Draws 15,000 to Its Centennial

September 30, 2009

In just four hours, 15,000 people gathered September 27 at the three branches of Salinas (Calif.) Public Library—John Steinbeck, El Gablian, and Cesar Chavez—for a simultaneous celebration of the library’s 100th birthday that included entertainment, a read-out, birthday cake, and the sealing of a time capsule. Library Director Elizabeth Martinez told American Libraries that the success of the event “just tells me how grateful the people are that the library is back.”

In late 2004, Salinas’ three libraries were facing closure in the wake of an $8 million deficit and the outlook was bleak. A delegation of national and state library leaders, as well celebrities, traveled to Salinas in February 2005 to rally on its behalf. In November 2005, nearly 9,000 voters passed the Measure V referendum, which raised a half-cent tax to fund libraries and other essential services. Despite some cutbacks in staffing due to recent citywide budget cuts, Martinez told AL that the libraries remain open seven days a week.

At each birthday bash location, children were entertained by the puppets from PBS’s Between the Lions and Sesame Street, including Big Bird and Elmo; additionally, each child with a library card received free tattoos from library mascot Snappy the Tortoise as well as free Snappy T-shirts. Each branch also passed out birthday cake and other goodies.

At the Steinbeck branch, paintings from the city’s Boronda and Hurd art collections were on display and participants could have photo portraits made with Cartoon Network characters Dora the Explorer and Sponge Bob. A reiteration of the 2005 read-in that helped save the libraries was held at the Chavez branch, featuring authors Gary Soto, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, Kirk Lumpkin, and Teresa LeYung, and singer Para la Gente, along with an exhibit of a proposed library expansion. The El Gabilan branch featured a Friends of the Salinas Public Library Giant Book Sale that carried the theme “Don’t Waste a Word–Read and Recycle,” and centennial organizers and elected officials sealed a time capsule intended to be opened September 27, 2109.

As part of the overall celebration, more than 100 middle and high school students submitted “letters to the future” about what libraries and reading will be like in the next century. The letters and other mementos were sealed in the 2-foot-by-1-foot silver time capsule by Martinez and Mayor Dennis Donahue, according to the September 28 Monterey Herald, along with photos of modern-day Salinas, money, the Guitar Hero video game, a phone book, a copy of a local newspaper, a TV guide, and representations of a computer, a smart phone an iPod shuffle, and an automobile. A copy of an early 20th century letter from city leaders to philanthropist Andrew Carnegie asking for his assistance in building Salinas’ first library was also included.

“The intent is to let the Salinas of the future know who we are today,” Lori Wood, organizer of the time capsule project, said in the September 25 Salinas Californian. “In preparing for this, we also wanted people to think about the library of the future.”

“The community of books is bigger than Salinas,” Mayor Donahue said in the Herald, noting that the effort to keep the libraries open was proof of what the community could accomplish.

Martinez told AL that “futuristic” Mayor Donahue also convened the first in a series of centennial dinners September 26 attended by storyteller Binnie Wilkin, poet and author Jimmy Santiago Baca, and former ALA president Loriene Roy to open discussion about recreating Salinas as a “city of letters.” She said it is the mayor’s vision that Salinas be known as a cultural center—a center for literacy, writing, and digital letters, as well as for helping people to learn how to read and for creating a literary marketplace, with the library as the convener. “He really believes that libraries can be the center of prosperity and good will and bring about some positive energy in the city,” she maintained.

As to what other cash-strapped libraries can glean from the Salinas experience, Martinez offers this advice: “It can be disappointing sometimes when money and resources are scarce, but it’s always about what you do with the money. People need us. If we could just keep the focus on the people, then we can do more.”