The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to close four small library branches at the request of the county librarian and other staff, who said it’s the only way to keep the library system going.
The supervisors voted to shut down the George library in south Merced, and Cressey, South Dos Palos and Stevinson libraries, replacing them with the county Bookmobile. Board Chairman and District 5 Supervisor Jerry O’Banion voted against the branch closures.
“We had difficulties with libraries and I voted to close the library,” O’Banion said of a decision to shut all county libraries in the early ’90s. “I swore to never close a library again and I intend to keep that promise.”
The recommendation to close the branches stemmed from a loss of nearly $1 million in funding from the now-dissolved redevelopment agency, said county librarian Diane Satchwell.
“That was almost a third of the (library) budget,” she said.
Satchwell said she conducted an overall assessment of the entire library system, looking at each branch’s performance in the areas of circulation, expenditures, access to technology and populations served. A community survey was also given, drawing responses from more than 400 county residents.
“The survey really did speak volumes about what the community wanted,” Satchwell said, adding that the majority of participants wanted the library to have Saturday hours and a more consistent schedule, improve technology and its book collections.
Based on the survey, Satchwell presented the board with two options: close the four branches and convert them to mobile sites with the Bookmobile, or keep them open and turn them into “stations,” reducing their operating hours to five hours a week and allowing customers only to pick up or drop off books.
The first option will trim the library’s current budget of $3.02 million to $2.76 million; in the second option, the budget would have been $2.88 million. Under both options, the main library in downtown Merced would have added three hours per week and the Atwater and Los Banos locations would have added eight hours.
Dos Palos and Hilmar will double their hours, going from 10 hours to 20 each week. Delhi, a school site, will see an increase of 30 minutes.
Livingston and Gustine branches both lost seven hours, from 30 to 23. Both options would have affected the branches the same way.
George, Cressey, South Dos Palos and Stevinson were selected for closure because they were the lowest-performing libraries, Satchwell said. In one year, 688 books were checked out at the South Dos Palos branch, 1,109 books at Cressey, 1,577 books at Stevinson and 3,217 books at the George location, based on data from 2010-11.
“Across the board, I was seeing a decline at those sites in their statistics,” Satchwell said. “As I started looking at it more and more, it started to become clear which branches were not the top performers.”
Several people, including members of the League of Women Voters and the Soroptimists, supported the option to close the four branches Tuesday, saying it was a critical move to support the library system.
“We all care about libraries, and we hate to see any closures,” said League of Women Voters President Mary Hofmann during the board meeting. “But to save the system, we have to do some pruning.”
Merced County resident Necola Adams told the board she remembered the thrill of having a Bookmobile come to her neighborhood as a child and urged the supervisors to select the first option.
“You can change a child’s life with just one book,” Adams said. “Our kids live in a very depressed area and they think this is it. But when you open their minds to books, they realize they can do and be anything.”
Board members discussed the issue briefly before voting 4 to 1 to support the option to close the four branches. District 2 Supervisor Hub Walsh advocated adding resources to the library system in the future.
District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said she worried that the Bookmobile might not go to certain parts of the county, such as Gustine. “Some of these communities are isolated and I don’t see the Bookmobile coming to Gustine,” she said. “I just would like to see a place that we do have Internet access for people who don’t have it at home.”
Ginny Farmer, a library commissioner in District 5, said she’s sad to see the library in South Dos Palos close, but the decision did not surprise her.
“The library in South Dos Palos is in an awkward location,” she said. “We’ve been fighting to keep it open, but we’ve finally realized it’s not feasible. I think people are going to be mildly upset about it.”
The Bookmobile will make stops in El Nido, Ballico and Planada for the first time, Satchwell said. The last day of operations for the four branches slated for closure will be April 12.
Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or email@example.com.