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A Good Read : The Love of Literature Is Alive in the Kern County Town of Delano

DELANO IS Asmall town in the San Joaquin Valley about 35 miles north of Bakersfield. Put another way, it’s about 65 miles south of Fresno. Either way, it’s not the Riviera. We in Los Angeles sometimes look down our noses at Fresno, and Fresno looks down its nose at Bakersfield. Delano is in the middle.

For a brief time in my youth I lived in a boardinghouse in Delano and rode a school bus to junior college in Bakersfield. It was not the most romantic period of my life; nonetheless, I have an affection for the place. For a while it was home.

So I was dismayed a few months ago when it appeared that hard times had fallen on the Delano public library, as they have throughout Kern County and elsewhere in the state.

The news was dire. The county supervisors told the library that it had to cut its hours to 15 a week and cut half of its staff. The survivors would work only half-time.

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In recent years I had made two trips to Delano to talk to the Friends of the Library--as vigorous a volunteer group as I’d ever seen--at dinner meetings held in the town hall or some such public place. While I was speaking, the microphone broke down; a friend went home and was back in five minutes with a replacement. That’s how small a town it is.

I charge no fee for speaking to library groups, but the Friends gave us an enormous basket filled with raisins, grapes, wine and other local products. It was winter, and we drove home over the Ridge Route in a blizzard. The only way I could keep on the road was to follow the red light of a slow-moving truck.

Despite that harrowing experience, I drove up to talk to them a year or so later, and my wife also drove up alone to talk to them when I couldn’t go. (I think they liked her better.)

So it was sad to hear about the virtual demise of this library. With about a third of our people illiterate, the closing of libraries seems like the wrong way to go.

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Then something good happened. Kern County residents began putting pressure on the supervisors. And--wonderful to behold--the county assessor discovered $8 million that had been hiding in a cubbyhole. Not only was the Delano library saved, but 11 other branches also were saved from extinction.

However, all is not blue skies for Delano yet.

All periodicals at all branches have been canceled for the coming year. No new books may be purchased except those bought with money collected by the Friends.

But in times of disaster, the community rallies. The Bakersfield Californian has donated its paper for a year; so has the Delano Record. An anonymous donor has given a subscription to Newsweek. Librarian Nick Edwards has given a year’s subscription to Hispanic. A Friend has donated her copies of Forbes and Money (as soon as she finishes reading them). Other groups or individuals have donated the Christian Science Monitor, Consumer Reports, Ebony and Publishers Weekly.

For prospective donors, the library has prepared a book of needed periodicals, in order of need, with cost. The Delano branch leads all others in donations for periodicals.

As for children’s periodicals, the Friends themselves took on the cost of resubscribing to all children’s periodicals for one year. However, Mad magazine didn’t make the cut.

All this is being accomplished by a group that has never raised its dues in 23 years and sustains itself through the contributions of “angels” ($5) and “double angels” ($10) and such glitzy events as salad-dessert book-review luncheons ($6) in the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall.

Delano Friends have such zeal, in fact, that members Jack and Rae Preston have taken in the library’s notorious cat, KC, who is now living a life of ease under the friendly protection of Prestons’ Doberman, Nova.

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Despite the squeeze, the Mary Salaber Book Award, in honor of emeritus member Mary Salaber, was given as usual this year, to On Wau Lau as the high school senior who best shows intelligent use of library facilities.

If the library would reconsider the value of a subscription to Mad magazine, I’d be glad to donate it.


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