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Libraries and museum key to creating informed citizens

June 16, 2014

This Tuesday (today), the Board of Supervisors will hear six funding options for the Inyo County Free Library and the Eastern California Museum. I support the roadmap option prepared by the library director to fund the Inyo County Free Library at 2012-13 levels and to continue to fund the Eastern California Museum at existing levels.
I grew up as and remain a library patron, and can tell you stories about books, music, pictures, ideas, people and programs with which I interacted in libraries from California to Massachusetts. I remember clearly the ornate lobby of our downtown library in Montgomery, Ala., as well as the exact location of the copy of Enid Blyton’s “Valley of Adventure” in our small-town library in Papillion, Neb.
Since moving to Independence in 2011, I visit the main location of the Inyo County Free Library to check out books and magazines, learn how to navigate county government, and introduce out-of-town guests to the place and its collection. After my mom’s first visit to the courthouse basement, where she found a copy of a book she had given to her parents as a gift in the 1960s cataloged along with new releases, she said: “It makes me so happy to see that there is still a real library in existence.”
My mom read to me from as early as I can remember – poetry, picture books, the Old Mother West Wind series, the Little House books … She wanted me to be a reader. By the time I was about 3 years old, I was convinced that I was a reader, since I could recite from memory every word of my favorite book, “Cowboy Dan,” and even sing the song at the end whose lyrics she, or maybe her sister, had set to music.
Reading brings practical advantages; it develops vocabulary, thinking skills, imagination, and writing ability. Reading also provides access to knowledge about any topic the reader chooses. Fluent reading makes it easier to participate in the important conversations – about society, about government, about ethics, about the past, about the present, about the future. Reading brings joy, too. For all of these reasons, my mother read to and with me.
My mom always took me to libraries, I suspect, because in them we could access plenty to read, but libraries were also community gathering places. That Papillion, Neb. library really sticks in my memory. I attended a Halloween story time there, where the children’s librarian told spooky stories over a “crackling fire” made of cellophane and plastic. In the same meeting hall, I attended a first-aid-for-babysitters class. Fines were forgiven if you returned late books on Saturdays, so there was always a good chance of running into neighbors that day. In a society that seems more and more insular, I value public places that offer recognition, conversation, news, commentary and literature.
Libraries are so quintessentially democratic. We put $576,000 (the roadmap option) of a $76,933,477 (Fiscal Year 2013-14 Recommended) budget into the Inyo County Free Library, and you and I and anyone else in Inyo County who can get themselves through the doors gets access to more books, periodicals, movies, and music than we could ever make it through, as well as a staff to take care of it all and guide us to the information we need and the materials we enjoy. We get this regardless of income or education or gender or race or any other individual trait. It’s our privilege as a member of the Inyo County community.
I am amazed by the enormity of the ongoing reduction in support for the Inyo County Free Library. Tuesday’s agenda states that nine employees have retired or left the library in recent years, and that the 2013-14 budget further reduced allocations for library salaries by $60,000. The library website currently lists seven employees. Even the roadmap alternative, the highest-funded option being considered, reduces library funding relative to recent years. Those remaining permanent employees and the temporary employees who have been keeping the doors open and providing quality service at some of the lowest salaries in the county budget deserve our respect and thanks. They also deserve compensation commensurate with the community service they provide, or at least aligned with the salaries of other county positions. They, and we community members, too, deserve the resources to maintain 2012-13’s level of library services.
I visited the Eastern California Museum soon after moving to Independence. I’d passed through before on quick visits to the Owens Valley, but I wanted to spend some quality time to learn about where I’d landed. Who lived here? What did they create? What did they value? Also I wanted to push the lever again on that amazing, mechanized, still-functioning bighorn sheep conservation diorama from the 1930s. The exhibits and programs of the Eastern California Museum did and do meet those aims. Since moving here, I’ve recognized descriptions of the museum in the published works of National Book Award winning author Joan Didion and Pulitzer Prize nominated author Ellen Meloy, so I know its power to educate and provoke reaches beyond me.
Many of the funding options being considered Tuesday suggest merging the museum and library staff. The functions of the two institutions, to inform and enrich the community and its individual members, are closely related, but the mechanisms and the tasks involved are often different and specialized. They are also numerous and time consuming, so merging the two through a diminished staff is not an advisable option. Additionally, both institutions are significant enough to demand full-time, professional leadership.
The Inyo County Free Library, formed in 1913, and the Eastern California Museum, organized in 1928 (in the Bishop branch of the Inyo County Free Library), are both trusts to us. They have the possibility to serve the vital function of making us and those who follow informed citizens of Inyo County and the world. We care for and use them for a time, and then we pass them on. Let’s at least pass them on unimpaired.
Kristen Luetkemeier
Independence

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