Shafter explores library partnership with BC; a model for other small-town libraries?

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SHAFTER, Calif. (KGET) — The Kern County Library system, like all county services, is vulnerable to the budget constraints that ebb and flow with the local economy.

Fluctuations in staffing levels and hours of operation are always possibilities when county tax revenue significantly rises or falls. And with oil prices having recently dipped to record lows, next year’s budget could be a tough one.

What might that mean for the library? Well, the City of Shafter, working in conjunction with a new partner, may have found a possible solution for its humble little branch: a cooperative effort with Bakersfield College.

They, along with the county library system, have at least one important thing in common: They want to educate the people of Shafter. And the plan they’re considering, still in the very early draft stage, could be a model for other cities in similar situations.

The little building at the corner of James and Sunset streets in downtown Shafter has two tenants — the Shafter Learning Center on the south side and the Kern County Library’s Shafter branch on the north side. They’re both dark now because of the pandemic — the library completely, the Learning Center in part — but when restrictions are lifted, they’ll resume their mission of educating, stimulating and entertaining the people of this Kern County farm town, population 21,000.

But the library side of the building could continue to feel the effects of the current downturn. A post pandemic world could be economically bleak as the county tries to pull itself out of a Covid-induced financial hole.

Enter Bakersfield College, which has made a tentative offer to operate the Shafter branch library — an offer that the Shafter City Council wants to hear more about. The council voted 5-0 this past week to explore the idea further.

Romeo Agbalog, the area’s trustee representative on the Kern Community College District board, says it’s an idea with potential.

“We have a tremendous partnership with the City of Shafter and the Shafter Learning Center and we grew concerned that the county library branch could potentially shut down,” Agbalog said. “And since we have a collective commitment to the community — we’re not just going to enhance educational opportunities but increase literacy — we thought it was a prudent thing to step forward.”

David Franz is the City of Shafter’s director of education — a position that, in and of itself, underscores Shafter’s commitment to learning. Few cities have created such roles within their structures. He said the potential partners are only in the talking stage.

“There’s no specific proposal,” he said. “Bakersfield College has basically said, if you’d like us to be involved we would like to find a way to be involved. So, what specifically that going to look like is unclear.”

Andie Sullivan, the county’s director of libraries, agreed things are still nebulous.

“We are in very early, preliminary discussions, really,” she wrote in an email to KGET. “Nothing to report at this time. We are just exploring possibilities.”

Bakersfield College already has a presence in the county’s smaller towns, with a Rural Initiatives project and an Early College program that has students receiving their high school diplomas and college AA degrees the same day.

Fourth District Kern County Supervisor David Couch says the Shafter library experiment — if it gets the go-ahead — could be a model for other small towns, and for Bakersfield College.

“(BC officials) see that as an opportunity for them,” he said. “They know that the community really values education and is investing in it. But I think if it’s successful, it could be a prototype for doing the same in other branches.”

There are some key details to work out, such as the library cooperative exchange program, which allows libraries to loan out books to other counties. But there are new potential opportunities, like the possibility of BC’s Levan Institute community learning classes coming to the Shafter library.

Bakersfield College, which was offering for-credit classes at the Shafter Learning Center before the pandemic took hold, would obviously continue doing so. A year’s worth of courses were available to students prior to the outbreak and orientation events were held regularly.

“This partnership between the Library, the City of Shafter and Bakersfield College seems so natural to many of us in Shafter because so many working relationships are already in place,” said Shafter resident Melissa Bergen, who is participating in the #savetheshafterlibrary change.org petition, which she said had 1,406 signers as of Saturday.

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