GUY RAZ, host:
Public libraries are feeling an unusual kind of crunch in the current recession. Demand for free library books and services is soaring across the country. At the same time, governments in at least 20 states have cut library budgets. Well, there's a town in Southern Colorado that's betting big on its new library. It's Walsenburg, population 3,800, and Theresa Schiavone paid a visit.
THERESA SCHIAVONE: The opening of the new Spanish Peaks Library was a celebration, with Spanish music and dance greeting visitors at the entrance to the large, ornamented brick building.
(Soundbite of music)
Inside, youngsters Evan Cassander(ph) and Matthew Harper(ph) pushed giant chess pieces on the floor of the bright green children's section as they go over their game strategy.
Unidentified Man: King retreats.
Unidentified Child: Yeah, he retreated over there. Then you took out my rook.
SCHIAVONE: It took another level of strategizing to build a first-rate library in a vacant building, when the average income in this city is $22,000 per year. Library director Monica Bier(ph) says residents had already raised money to expand the existing library in a crowded bungalow on the city's main street. When the local school district announced plans to knock down the old high school, citizens decided to make that the new library.
Ms. MONICA BIER (Director, Spanish Peaks Library): With fear and trepidation, we went to the voters, and they really did want to save the building, and they voted a $1.75 million bond issue. So they have indebted themselves for 20 years to pay twice what they were paying for the library.
MS. NORMA LOU MYRR(ph) (Library Board Member): But they were game, they were game. They had grown up in the library.
SCHIAVONE: Eighty-two-year-old library board member Norma Lou Myrr started borrowing books in the basement of the old courthouse in Walsenburg as a young child. She helped build the old bungalow library, and she was instrumental in getting support for the new one.
Ms. MYRR: I know two men here that read maybe two to three books a week, and they're always in the library. Both of them were ranchers, and the bond issue was going to affect them more than me, with my home, but they went for it because it's a part of their life.
SCHIAVONE: Myrr and other library stewards in the community told their neighbors that their extra taxes would pay for access to thousands of books and the Internet for them and their children. Denver-based researcher Keith Curry Lance conducted a landmark study in 1993 that traced the effect of libraries on children.
Mr. KEITH CURRY LANCE (Director, Library Research Service): We did a study of public libraries just this past year. What we found is where there is higher circulation of children's materials and higher attendance at children's programs, kids' third-grade reading scores tend to be higher.
SCHIAVONE: Achievement tests in reading start in third grade. James LaRue is library director for Douglas County, north of Walsenburg. He's also written a book and numerous articles about libraries. He says studies like Lance's have changed the way some library directors see their role.
Mr. JAMES LaRUE (Library Director, Douglas County): We've been trying to sell, over the past 10, 15 years, the notion that we were one-stop shopping, ask us any question, we'll give you the information, exactly the job description of Google. And that's when we kind of start scratching our heads and looking at, how are we really used? Maybe the single most important thing we do in a public library is to fire the child's imagination.
SCHIAVONE: That's certainly true for nine-year-old Evan Cassander(ph), who wastes no time making himself at home at the new Spanish Peaks Library.
Mr. EVAN CASSANDER: The children's area, I really like it because I'm already seeing where my favorite books are going to be. If I see a cover that looks interesting or something that I've never read and always wanted to read, and I've never seen it, I just, like, check it out.
SCHIAVONE: For the children of Walsenburg, the library means more opportunities to become well-read ranchers or anything else that its 22,000 volumes can bring to mind.
For NPR News, I'm Theresa Schiavone.
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