MERCED — In the era of the Kindle and iPad, the Merced County Library is counting on an old-fashioned but historically useful way to get kids to read.
And with local literacy rates at record lows and school dropout rates at more than 30 percent, the ability to read well matters more than ever.
The Merced County Board of Supervisors has authorized the library to apply for a federal grant to buy the bookmobile. Nearly $200,000 could be partly or completely funded by the federal government, while $66,000 would come out of the library trust fund, according to Jacque Meriam, Merced County librarian.
She applied for the grant at the end of July. Now, with the county's formal authorization, the waiting game begins. The money would come from a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Grant.
The library wants to buy a bookmobile — or a 36-foot bus — and use it in the Planada School District. The school district doesn't have a library, and the bus would provide much-needed literacy help for kids and families unable to access books and Internet in their area.
The push stems from low literacy levels in the county's rural areas.
There are no library services in Planada, with a population of about 1,760 people, or in the area of El Nido, with about 795 people, the librarian said.
"The closest library to them is in Le Grand," she added.
Fifty-five percent of the people in Merced County can't read or read at the lowest two proficiency levels, according to Pamela Cornelison, literacy coordinator for the library, who used the U.S. Census Bureau and other government agencies to estimate the number.
She said the lowest level is considered illiterate. As for one level up, "You can read and get by, but you may not be able to evaluate more complex materials."
The bookmobile probably would employ one person. Meriam said she hopes to provide wireless access in the bus so people can access the Internet.
And it would include some of what the main Merced County Library offers: books, DVDs, CDs, books on tape and possibly some magazines, she said.
California has 69 bookmobiles, the second most in the nation, according to statemaster.com. If Meriam gets the grant, there'll be one more where it's needed — Planada.