The heart of most schools is the library. It's a place to check out the latest vampire book, print an English essay, learn about the differences between fact and opinion, unearth that last source for a history paper, or find refuge and quiet time to read.
But as the recession squeezes funding from schools, officials have cut back on nonacademic support programs, including libraries.
Take Davis High School, where librarian Stephen Walker's annual supplies budget has been stripped from $76,000 to $4,000 to cover the cost of copy paper, printer ink, magazine and newspaper subscriptions, college guides and Advanced Placement test preparation books.
"When they do these cuts, they always say 'students come first,' " said Walker, noting that the library records 80,000 to 100,000 contacts with students each year. "But if you go down to the district office, you're going to see flat screens, the newest software and the newest computers."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
Modesto City Schools' high schools are fortunate -- they still have full-time librarians.
The past two years of the district's $20 million in budget cuts downsized the ranks of libraries at elementary and junior high schools. Two librarians cover the district's four junior highs, and nine are split among 23 elementary campuses.
That leaves half the district's junior high and elementary libraries closed, dark and quiet at the end of each week, when many students hope to check out books to read over the weekend.
"If they cut us more, we're dead," said Paula Scheidecker, a librarian who splits her time between Fairview and Tuolumne elementary schools. "These kids depend on our libraries, on our books."
Forget buying new books to replace old or damaged ones.
Davis High's Walker said the library has about 27,660 books, but that he hasn't been able to buy any new ones in the past two years. When teens started fawning over "Twilight," Walker had no budget to offer the books for checkout. Instead, he and his wife donated two sets of the four-part vampire series.
Davis High senior Jamiee Cook, 17, is saddened by the cutbacks, since she benefitted from libraries. In elementary school, she struggled in her classes but discovered a love of reading and learning after poring over a Harry Potter book.
She said it's not only important to offer books to students for classes, but also for outside reading. She's noticed fewer books available for checkout.
"A well-rounded reader is someone who enjoys reading on an inside level," said Cook, who wants to study writing at the University of California at Berkeley next fall. "Especially in elementary and junior high -- if I didn't have that everyday trip to the library. ... If you don't get kids interested in reading when they're young, they won't see any use for libraries when they're older."
For those who think libraries have not been relevant since the Internet, librarians point to the skills students learn among the walls of bookshelves. They learn to read, use computers, write papers, use figures in databases, research, and use and cite sources like books and magazines in papers.
"There's a lot of information out there. A lot of it is biased and unauthenticated," Walker said.
Librarians teach those skills when teachers bring in their classes, or when students swing by before or after school or during lunch. Most schools also have computer stations where students use an Accelerated Reader program to improve their reading and comprehension skills.
"I can't think of a civilization that would close their libraries," Scheidecker said.
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2339. Read Hatfield's education blog at thehive.modbee.com/ExtraCredit.