In the back room of a post office torn down decades ago, a little bit of culture once graced a town full of lumberjacks, sawmill, office workers and their families.
I spent plenty of time in my youth in the early to mid-1960s in that little library, the wooden plank seating and splinters be damned. The whining of the saws became our Musak in Standard, then a tiny mill town near Sonora. I read every sports book on the company-donated shelves, along with as many history books as a 9-year-old could understand. The impact? I went on to major in history in college before becoming a sports writer.
I tell you this because many others also created fond memories and found their inspirations in libraries. Since 1995, Stanislaus County’s library system has relied on an 1/8-percent sales tax that funds nearly 89 percent of what it costs to keep the main library in downtown Modesto and 12 other branches up and running and expanding services.
The tax is comes up for renewal again in November. Proponents are pitching it for 12 years, which will allow for longer-term planning for improvements instead of sweating out how to gear up for the next renewal campaign every five or so years. But while a pollster suggests Measure S should get the required two-thirds approval, proponents need to campaign like they are losing. Why? Because voters last year passed Measure L, the county’s half-cent self-help sales tax to fund road improvements and construction. And the state legislature recently imposed a 12-cent per gallon sales tax that will benefit Stanislaus and Merced counties with more than $500 million in projects including bringing the ACE Train through Stanislaus County to Merced.
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The state gas tax has angered many taxpayers because it was passed by lawmakers in Sacramento and not by voters at the ballot boxes. They will be feeling the impact at the gas pump by the time the election rolls around. That means library tax proponents cannot take what should be a gimme for granted. There is too much at stake.
Despite being in a tech-happy era when people can read books on Nooks and search the Internet from their phones, the county’s library system is flourishing. The branches are loaning out books, DVDs and other materials in record numbers. Why? Because a trip to the library is sensory. It is an experience. For young children it is an outing and an adventure. For older kids, still a rite of passage.
Many days, school buses invade downtown Modesto bringing children to the library. Keep in mind that prior to Prop. 13 in 1978, schools could budget for field trips to the Capitol in Sacramento, and attractions in San Francisco and other Bay Area cities. Post-Prop. 13, that money evaporated. It falls to parent fund-raising organizations to generate the cash. Many of the schools in lower-economic neighborhoods don’t get that kind of support. Nor can some family likely afford the electronic gadgetry that isn’t available except when school is in session. The libraries offer free computer time.
Consequently, that short trip to downtown Modesto to the library, along with the McHenry Museum and the Mansion, might be the only field trip some kids will ever enjoy and, for many, will be their first exposure ever to a library.
Their experience will be in buildings that are carpeted and air conditioned, stocked with a forest of books, magazines and DVDs. And they can learn the art of researching and resourcing from people who are eager to help.
Should the tax renewal pass, that is how children today will remember the library, just as I remember shelves of books a small room in the back of an old post office, where we gained knowledge and splinters.