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What Would Steinbeck Say?

The public library in Salinas, Calif., that bears the name of famed hometown author John Steinbeck is set to close this year.

So are two branches in this city of poor farmers and immigrants - economic relatives of the downtrodden migrants depicted in the nobel laureate's novel, "The Grapes of Wrath."

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Facing state funding cuts, burgeoning local expenses, and voter rejection of a tax increase for city services, the city council decided last month to shutter all three of Salinas's libraries.

After public schools, public libraries are the next front in the fight for literacy. The Internet age may lead people to believe that public libraries are passé, but their use is way up, according to the American Library Association. From 1991-2001, visits to public libraries increased 76 percent; circulation of materials is up 22 percent; and reference transactions grew by 33 percent. Visits increase in hard times, when people borrow instead of buy, and use library computers and take classes to find jobs.

But over the past 18 months, funding cuts at public libraries have reached at least $82 million nationwide, and at least 31 libraries have closed. Hours also have been reduced.

Many of the Salinas library visitors come for the literacy courses, after-school programs, and citizenship primers - an indication of libraries' expanding role. Perhaps some corporate white knight or philanthropist will save the Salinas libraries, or at least one of them. Perhaps Salinas residents will realize that a library is worth paying for (a local group is already organizing to spread the word). But if not, how can Salinas hope to grow another Steinbeck?