Explore Three California Desert Libraries (cover story)
DESERT Magazine, October 2019
With the world of information in our pockets and at our fingertips, the concept of libraries might seem quaint and outdated. But to paraphrase the famous aphorism, the death of the American library is greatly exaggerated. Even in the age of Google and the smartphone, public libraries are thriving: according to the American Library Association’s most recent data, there were “113 million attendees at public library programs in 2016, more than all Major League Baseball, National Football League, and National Basketball Association games combined. That’s 16.5 million more than in 2013.” (1)
Libraries continue to reinvent themselves as a 21st century public commons, a place where people can connect with the larger community for events, children’s programming and homework help, and yes, they still even offer those old-school devices – known as books.
Across the globe, a community’s needs, interests and history can be viewed through the prism of their library’s services and collection. Here in the desert, libraries provide for a widely diverse population of different incomes, city and rural communities and much more. Whether it’s the high desert military city of Twentynine Palms, loners and anarchists roaming Slab City, or a well-to-do Palm Springs neighborhood association, these three locations are defining what a library can be.
Twentynine Palms Public Library
United States public libraries provide an incalculable service to rural areas, as rural locations struggle with a variety of issues, including lower access to broadband internet, less public government funding, lower employment and educational outcomes and more. Rural public libraries have long worked to close some of these gaps in services, by providing free information, internet access and educational children’s programming, to name just a few.
In the high desert, the Twentynine Palms Public Library is a small downtown library that is located just a few miles from the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center military base. With a large population of service members, both active duty and veterans, the Library caters to a unique community (in addition to non-military high desert residents). According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 22% of Twentynine Palms residents live below the poverty line (3), making services like the public library significantly important. In fact, across the nation, public libraries have taken a larger societal role beyond books and internet access (for example, some libraries in the United States have Narcan stocked in case they find a patron having an opiate overdose at their library).
One unique aspect of the Twentynine Palms Public Library is their local history collection, which includes some of the most significant publications from high desert pioneers, including Elizabeth Crozer Campbell’s “The Desert Was Home” and Pat Rimmington’s classic “The Adobes of Twentynine Palms”. In library lingo, this local history section is considered a “special collection”, items that stand out from many of the traditional library materials in circulation. Managed and curated by the library staff, this special collection reflects a larger theme: that even a tiny library in Twentynine Palms can perform an invaluable role, such as maintaining the history of their community, its people and its places, a history that could very easily be lost.
As the head of the San Bernardino County library system, County Librarian Michael Jimenez is deeply familiar with the challenges and opportunities for the library system in the high desert.
“Our rural libraries in the high desert…have become a hub of activity within their given communities, offering free resources otherwise unavailable to some,” he said. “We think of ourselves as one of the best kept secrets out there and our mission is to ensure we don’t stay a secret. We have so much to offer from books, media, digital resources to adult literacy, an online high school diploma program, large events, and so much more – all for free to the community.”
Jimenez also stressed that San Bernardino County libraries have followed the same positive trends as national public libraries, seeing their usage statistics rise significantly.
“San Bernardino County Library continues to see exponential growth in both our digital and physical collections,” he said. “During fiscal year 2018/19, the County Library checked out over six million items. This is an increase of nearly four million over the past nine years. In addition to that, our attendance and program/event participation continues to grow as well. The greatest part is that even with all of this growth, our usage continues to increase month by month.”
Jimenez is focused on renovations, too. Both Yucca Valley Public Library and Twentynine Palms Public Library are scheduled for renovations over the next year.
“Our patrons and our rural facilities take full advantage of all of the structured programming and events that the library has to offer,” he said. “Where we see needs, we address them. For example, the Twentynine Palms Library has an upcoming remodel scheduled to begin at the end of this month, that includes the addition of a Veterans Resource Center.
“These libraries are functioning as hubs for not only information, but for social interaction and community engagement. We take every opportunity that we have to continue to add the services needed, based on the needs of the particular community that library is in.”
Twentynine Palms Public Library. 6078 Adobe Rd, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277
The Slab City Lizard Tree Library
Although it’s been scrubbed from most American textbooks, the United States has a rich history of radicalism (going as far back as the late 1700’s). Libraries have largely embodied this ethos, at least in spirit, as the values surrounding free information, free speech and free ideas are inherent in the library field. “Radical librarianship” is actually a thing, and a subset of both professionally trained and self-taught library workers define themselves as “anarchist librarians”.
The Slab City Lizard Tree Library, located in Niland, CA, encapsulates everything that’s strange, creative and free about radical, anarchist libraries. With lopsided rooms built out of repurposed wood and corrugated metal, the library holds a large variety of dust-encrusted books, stacks of VHS tapes and a collection of art exhibits (books are checked out and returned via the honor system). Visitors can hop onto the “Internut”, a rusty old typewriter with a mouse trap as a computer mouse. The word GOOGLE is spray painted in the logo’s iconic rainbow colors across a book display made out of an old wagon wheel. These satirical touches have a deeper meaning; a reaction to our hyper-connected and distracted age.
This is a new iteration of the Library, as the first build was destroyed by the former Chief Librarian, who, according to anecdotal stories, had a rage-filled breakdown of sorts. After a short search, Slab City resident Cornelius Vango took over the position as Chief Librarian and rebuilt the library with her friends. A self-described “off-grid anarchist van-dwelling nomadic adventurer punk”, Vango now maintains the Library collection, repairs what’s needed and is the Library’s spokesperson.
The Slab City Lizard Tree Library has become a tourist destination of sorts, as visitors from around the world have stumbled upon the library during trips to Slab City. In addition, Vango and her punk rock friends regularly broadcast live YouTube streaming from the library. They share their anarchist wisdom, tips for handling desert summers, philosophical ramblings and more (the real-time comments are an entertainment in itself). NSFW is an understatement.
Slab City Library. 555 Rosalie Drive. Niland, CA 92257
Little Free Libraries in Palm Springs
In 2009, a man from Hudson, Wisconsin named Todd Bol, built a small replica of a schoolhouse from an old wooden barn door, planted it in his front yard and filled it with his late mother’s books, hoping to start a book exchange with his neighbors. Inspired by Andrew Carnegie, the railroad magnate who founded public libraries across the United States, Bol turned the tribute to his mother into a global movement: Little Free Libraries. (2)
According to the official Little Free Library website there are over 90,000 Little Free Library book-sharing boxes in 91 countries around the world. Four of them are located in Palm Springs.
In 2016, two members of the Palm Springs Racquet Club Estates Neighborhood Association (RCENO), communications coordinator Joseph May and the president of the RCENO Robert Perry, were visiting San Diego with their husbands. While strolling the South Park neighborhood of the city, they came across a Little Free Library and the idea was born.
“We started out with two and, due to the success, we expanded,” May said. “We now have four in our neighborhood.”
The Little Free Libraries are stocked with books by both RCENO board members and neighbors who use them. The RCENO is very active in its community and is involved with a number of local events, including the popular home tour during Palms Springs Modernism Week.
“We’ve received lots of support from our neighbors,” May said. “Our organization profits greatly each year by our annual home tour during Palm Springs Modernism Week and we use the funds to give back to our community and to the city at large. The [Little Free Libraries] is one of many projects that we’ve either taken on ourselves or have contributed to over the past eleven years. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Palms Springs Little Free Library locations. 896 E. Racquet Club / 2275 N Starr / 589 E. Francis / 1115 E. Padua Way (all 92262)