Writers rally round to save the libraries of Steinbeck's birthplace

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The Independent Culture

The California farm town of Salinas has a high-profile literary pedigree as the birthplace of John Steinbeck. But, in these budget-straitened times, it is struggling to come up with the money to keep its three public libraries from closure.

The California farm town of Salinas has a high-profile literary pedigree as the birthplace of John Steinbeck. But, in these budget-straitened times, it is struggling to come up with the money to keep its three public libraries from closure.

Over the weekend, the town organised a 24-hour non-stop fundraising read-a-thon featuring a smattering of contemporary authors and television actors. The goal is to come up with half a million dollars before the end of June - just enough to keep them open one day a week until the end of the year.

Thanks to the efforts of the out-of-town celebrities and local religious groups, that goal is now close to being met. In the longer term, though, the future of Salinas's most basic literary service looks bleak. The town is $9m (£4.8m) in the red - a huge figure for an impoverished community of sub-minimum wage farmworkers and a handful of modest landowners, more than half of whom are native Spanish speakers.

If the libraries do close, Salinas would become the largest city in the United States to be entirely deprived of public access to reading materials.

The problem is far from isolated. Several factors have placed near-unbearable strains on local budgets - a national economic recession, a federal government too overstretched by tax cuts and commitments to military and national security spending to help out, a proliferation of mandatory spending requirements, and a growing political aversion to raising local rates to make up the shortfall.

California has struggled with the biggest budget deficits in the nation, and Salinas, as one of its poorest towns, has felt the brunt of them. It is as much the hardscrabble place as it was in Steinbeck's day, a clearinghouse for lettuce, broccoli, artichokes and other crops growing in the blissfully fertile Salinas Valley, about two hours' drive south of San Francisco, but one whose wealth is largely enjoyed by agribusiness concerns.

Salinas's three libraries - named after Steinbeck, the farmworker union leader Cesar Chavez and the El Gabilan mountain range vividly described in Steinbeck's East of Eden - are the closest thing the town has to community centres, serving as places for farmworkers' children to sit and wait after school until their parents come in from the fields.

Salinas's mayor, Anna Caballero, has attracted such writers as Anne Lamott and Maxine Hong Kingston to the read-a-thon, as well as former M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell and Hector Elizondo from Chicago Hope. She has also appealed to California's Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, for special relief, but he has budget headaches of his own.

They all began reading on Saturday afternoon outside the Cesar Chavez library and carried on all night in a large tent set up for the occasion. The non-stop reading marathon concluded on Sunday with a march and a music festival.

What Steinbeck, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, would have made of the crisis is unclear.

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