When I visited this small Central Valley town on a Friday afternoon, by far the busiest place was the public library.
The teens rode their bikes around the large parking lot, then went inside to browse the shelves. Classical music – Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”, some harpsichord improvisations by Bach – streamed from someone’s Spotify. Two adults walked the section in Spanish. Tykes made crafts with branch supervisor Frank Cervantes; others worked on a Snoopy puzzle. Restless tweens jumped from computers to couches to chat with each other like hipsters at the Coachella Festival check out different musical acts.
Outside, McFarland, 14,000, was calm. Inside the Clara M. Jackson Branch Library, it was a rage—literally, because the patrons were so mad.
The city’s only library is only open Thursdays and Fridays from noon to 6 a.m., because that’s all Kern County — one of California’s most underfunded county library systems — can afford. It reopened in February after being closed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cervantes, 35, said the pent-up demand was so great that “as soon as I unlocked the doors, so many people came in that they almost knocked me over”.
But not even three months after its relaunch, the adults who run McFarland want to shut down the library fun.
“It does provide some service, but sometimes you have to judge what’s most important,” Kenny Williams, McFarland’s city manager, told me over the phone. He wants Kern County, which owns the library building, to let him turn it into the headquarters of the McFarland Police Department – of which he happens to be the chief.
“We would use this building 24/7,” he said, while swearing he had no conflict of interest. “Regarding the library and public safety and the comparison of the use of the library building, [residents] recognize that we have a problem with crime.
Williams has the backing of McFarland City Council members, who wrote in a March letter to Kern County Services General Manager Geoffrey Hill that there was only ‘minimal opposition’ to the idea.
They forgot to talk to the people who actually use the library.
Analuz Hernandez and Yazmine Olivera, both 11 years old, were there when I visited.
“We are surrounded by a pile of land!” Analuz said, referring to the acres and acres of cotton fields and almond groves that make up McFarland’s biggest industry. “They can’t build something new on all that land?”
Yazmine, meanwhile, suggested an alternate location for the police headquarters. “They should go to the eastern part,” she said. “There are more emergencies on the other side of here.”
“It should be open every day,” said Analuz’s brother, 8-year-old Francisco Hernandez Jr.. “If this place isn’t open, then I should be home. And that would be boring.”
Cervantes didn’t want to give too many opinions, partly because he had to take care of a group of children. But he stressed the importance of having a library in a small town like McFarland. He himself grew up in the even smaller farming community of Mettler, an hour away. His hometown did not have a library, but his mother was able to take him to libraries in major cities.
“It was the difference,” he said quietly, “between a bright future and the future of some of my peers.”
The McFarland library controversy begins to attract national attention in the literary world as another case of rejection of education.
But naysayers will struggle to convince city officials to go against Williams, whom they see as something of a savior for the impoverished, predominantly Latino city.
When he became police chief in February last year, he admits he was “stunned” by the problems facing him.
A former city manager disappeared for months in 2019 before authorities found his body in a car at the bottom of the Kern River. A former police chief in 2020 did not dispute the use of city funds to pay an officer to help renovate his home.
The police department had a reputation as a job of last resort for officers with a history of misconduct elsewhere. It was technically only operational from noon to midnight. His headquarters down the street from the library is so small — shared locker rooms for men and women, one bathroom, sensitive evidence stored in a trailer — that Williams uses a noise machine so no one can hear his conversations.
“It was one struggle after another,” he said.
Williams has restored order to the point that the city council named him city manager earlier this year. The police department is now on duty 24 hours a day and recruiting. A few weeks ago, Williams led a successful farmland annexation that would nearly double the size of the city and allow it to capitalize on the continued migration of Californians to Kern County.
That is why, he said, a new police headquarters is needed. He doesn’t have the funds for a new building – that’s where Clara M. Jackson’s branch comes in.
“I love the library,” Williams said. “I think it’s a nice place to gather. But it is not used enough. When I asked him if he would reconsider his takeover bid if it were open for more days, he laughed.
“If it’s open five days a week,” the city’s general manager said, “they’re doing it as a method so the McFarland Police Department doesn’t get the building.”
The city council announced that there would be a new library in an undisclosed location, open three days a week instead of two. Williams swears that a room currently used for story time will be a base for the new Police Activities League and Explorer programs.
“You want to get impressionable kids between 2:30 and 6 p.m. and engage them,” Williams said, not appreciating the irony that the library is already doing that, during those hours.
Kern County Library spokeswoman Jasmin LoBasso said her bosses had heard nothing from McFarland or county officials about what happened next. She criticized what she called myopia.
“Reducing a library to just a facility that checks books misses what a library is,” she said.
If the city starts the library from its current location, “I don’t know what the recourse would be,” she added. “And the need at McFarland is absolutely there.”
Back at the library, the few adults present were furious but resigned to the disappearance of the library.
In a quiet corner, Bertha Cuate attended school lessons with 7-year-old Nicolas Maldonado. The retired college professor teaches children at small library branches in southern Kern County.
“They learn to love reading and studying here,” she said. “To deny them that would be a tragedy.
Angie Maldonado came to pick up her son. The longtime McFarland resident recalled the excitement when the library opened in 1994.
“We don’t have anything else here for the kids,” the 42-year-old said. “We don’t have a theatre. You take that away, the kids stay home bored or go out on the street.
Phil Corr watched with a smile as the children swirled around him. He is pastor of a church down the street and president of the Friends of McFarland Library.
“It’s an injustice to attack a vulnerable place,” said Corr, 66, author of three books. “It is logically and morally wrong. The police need more space, and this building is ideally located. But it is also ideally located for children.
Recently, he invited Williams to visit the library.
“Kenny saw a meeting room and said, ‘This is where we can put the library. “”
The pastor shook his head. “That?”