Not Just a Warehouse for Books

By expanding human services, a small-town California library raises circulation

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT'S hard to imagine at first glance, but libraries near and far may have a lot to learn from the Colton Public Library in this old railroad town 40 miles east of Los Angeles. The unassuming library building doesn't hint at anything extraordinary. But this is an institution going against the tide.

While libraries across the United States have been staggering - even collapsing - due to eroding local support and funding, the number of people using this library jumped 42 percent in one year. In addition, the library budget has increased 55 percent since 1987.

``The basic function of the library traditionally has been to provide information,'' says city librarian David Michael Davis. `Now that information doesn't have to come just from books but can come from other sources.''

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The renaissance of the Colton library has come about through a search for innovative ways to support the community.

``It's been a revolution,'' says Mr. Davis of the changes implemented since he took over three years ago. When he arrived, he says, the place was a backwater. ``The library was a warehouse of books, and we just waited for people to come to us,'' he says. ``Now, we go out and get them.''

A ``Community Room'' in the building now hosts counseling and parent-support groups as well as after-school programs. A recycling information center has been organized. Art classes are offered on a regular basis.

Community programs are used as a ``hook'' to entice people into the library. Once inside, many discover the hidden treasure of books, periodicals, videos, audio cassettes, and compact discs available to them.

``Under the circumstances, I don't think we have a choice but to change the concept of what a library should be to fit the needs of the community,'' Davis asserts.

More than 50 percent of the 40,000 residents are Hispanic and the median annual household income was under $15,000 in 1980, according to census data. ``People in the community are often hesitant to use the library because it's not part of their cultural tradition,'' Davis says.

Although the library has books and other materials in Spanish as well as English, close to half of all Colton residents over 18 never graduated from high school. More than 3,000 people in Colton are illiterate, Davis estimates. ``If people can't read, there's hardly a need for a library,'' he says.

In 1988, the library founded the ``Advance to Literacy'' program, which has helped more than 150 Colton residents learn to read and write English. Currently, about 40 volunteers devote three hours a week to one-on-one tutoring with ``adult learners.''

Wonderful things have happened to the people who come here to learn, says Mary Baer, literacy assistant. ``We encourage them to get a library card and check out books,'' she says. Some graduates of the program are the library's most faithful users.

Many Colton residents commute up to two hours each way to work in Los Angeles or Orange County. Recognizing the constraints of such a lifestyle, Davis and the library staff are working together to provide support services that people can really use. ``When people are spending four hours on the freeway, they don't have any time to read a book,'' Davis says.

As a result, audio-visual materials - including a large collection of books on tape - have seen a phenomenal increase in circulation - more than 200 percent. Books aren't being ignored, however. Book circulation increased 35 percent in 1989 and has continued to increase.

Colton residents Angel and Yolanda Alfaro visit the library about once a week. Mr. Alfaro says he usually gets tapes rather than books. Today, Mrs. Alfaro is checking out some books for their 14-year-old daughter.

Tom Yu and his four-year-old daughter Doris are browsing in the stacks of children's books in a brightly decorated corner of the building. Mr. Yu and Doris come to the library every week. Today they are searching for a dinosaur book to take home to Doris's brother, who is in first grade.

Libraries are family places, but not all parents bring their children to the local library. By working with other city agencies, the Colton library has found ways to bring in children without depending on their parents to initiate a visit.

Children enrolled in the city's summer day camp participate in the library's summer reading program. Many walk away with library cards of their own. Special after-school reading programs involve the local community childcare program. A weekly story hour for children features the Wizard of Whangdoodleland (assistant librarian Blair Holm in disguise).

The goal for the library is a gradual evolution from merely an information center to a human-services center, Davis says. He solicits ideas for creative, family-oriented activities from the library staff - anything that will encourage community involvement. ``I'm amazed at some of the ideas the staff comes up with,'' he says.

Off-beat library promotions and fund-raisers are popular. When the director of the literacy program did a ``Skydive for Literacy,'' she earned several thousand dollars in pledges for the program. During ``Turn on to Reading Week,'' more than 2,500 people played ``Dunk the Librarian'' and received live elephant rides on ``Babar, the famous literary elephant.''

Since 1987, grant monies totaling $420,000 have made a substantial difference to the library's general fund. The library hadn't received any grant funds since it was established in 1906. Insufficient tax revenues from Colton didn't stop library officials from finding the resources elsewhere.

``Librarians need to be active,'' Davis says. ``I don't think we can assume anymore that people are going to come to us. I think that's a very dangerous assumption.''

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