Four years ago, on Dec. 26, 2013, Cambria’s big new library opened its doors to the public.
As I reported then, enthusiast Christine Heinrichs seemed to speak for everybody there when she said, “Is this not Cambria’s best Christmas gift ever?”
I remember watching people clicking away at the four new computer stations for public use. Others checked out books and videos, or lounged in comfy chairs by the big windows to chat or read newspapers and magazines.
Many of us simply reveled in the bright, airy spaciousness of the 5,800-square-foot building at 1043 Main St.
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That day, I couldn’t help but remember my first visits to Cambria’s library (then in a snug Burton Drive home next to Rigdon Hall) and librarian Kristin Barnhart, who always greeted each patron, nearly always by name.
She started her Cambria job in 1979 and stayed for 14 years, becoming the branch’s manager before transferring to the San Luis Obispo City-County branch, where she eventually became the children’s librarian.
Kris’ last working day was Nov. 21, and she officially retires Jan. 6, after working in the county library system for nearly 39 years.
“It was long enough,” she said, “so my toddlers that I read to in story times in Cambria’s library have gone off to college, gotten married and would bring their own kids in for my story times in San Luis Obispo.”
(To see a video of her farewell story time session, go to https://goo.gl/jYNeAz)
In a recent interview, Kris said not all of her North Coast-related memories are from that long ago.
She said a young man came to see her in SLO before she retired, to say “hello” and “thank you” and remind her how she used to read chapters from the “Red Wall” books to him and other young chaps on Friday afternoons at the Cambria library.
The fellow said he’d had been at Mother’s Tavern recently when he ran into two of Kris’ other “Red Wall” enthusiasts. He hadn’t seen the others in years, and didn’t recognize them at first. But when he overheard one of them say, “You don’t know ‘Red Wall’ until you’ve heard Kris read it,” he immediately recognized them, and the trio had a mini old-home-week reunion.
In the decades since 1979, Kris has seen many changes in how people use libraries but no decrease in the enthusiasm her patrons have for the services that libraries offer, even as those services have morphed and expanded.
These days, book checkouts aren’t tracked in an alphabetized file of handwritten cards, and the patron list isn’t on a Rolodex. Typewriters are dinosaurs now. And the infamous card catalog? “Ours in Cambria was the last one,” she said with a laugh. “They swooped in and took it while I was on maternity leave.”
Her daughter, Grace Shaffer, is 27 now.
Computers rule the libraries these days, for finding items patrons want and keeping tabs on various materials that they check out.
Computers automatically update patrons about their accounts and provide audio books and e-books, in-library wi-fi access that patrons also can access with their own electronic devices, and public research opportunities that have made the Encyclopedia Britannica series quite obsolete. There’s also a SLOCO library app.
“We even circulate internet ‘hot spots’ now,” Kris said, so patrons who don’t have wi-fi access at home can have it there for a week at a time.
What hasn’t changed in Cambria is the personal touch, and enthusiasm for reading and the library. According to county library director Christopher Barnickel, about 1,100 patrons used the Cambria library in October, checking out 5,200 items and placing about 1,350 holds. Most of the items were “DVD/Blu-ray checkouts, followed by adult fiction,” Barnickel said.
But stats “simply don’t do justice to the reach of libraries in the community,” he said. Barnickel’s administration stresses “community impact as it relates to service, equity and access,” with changes that range from “additional hours of operation and the convenience of auto-renewal to new staff members who have focused on increased adult programming options.”
Current library manager Destiny (Carter) Johnson has been at the Cambria branch since 2006. She recently explained that, “Libraries are less about just coming in to get a book now. … It’s more about social engagement. For some of our regulars, we’re a point of contact for their socialization for the week, to meet and talk or come to a program.
“We’re able to get to know our customers a bit more” than is possible in a larger branch, Johnson said. “Here, somebody greets them. We really try to make them feel it’s a space that’s partly theirs, a space they can share.”
And since 1991, Friends of the Cambria Library has been raising funds and helping out.
For years, that money went toward the new building.
“Now,” Johnson said, “they’re raising money for programs, performers, a 65-inch TV” on which to show films and other shows. So far, those programs have ranged from the adult coloring club and kids’ Lego clubs to Jedi training for youngsters, visits from wild animals and a bee enthusiast, and much more.
According to Jeri Farrell, Friends president, money raised by the group since its bookshop opened in the new building also goes into: The Joen Kommer Scholarship fund to help library employees who wish to pursue their library degrees; a system that allows those with a SLOCO library card to download audio books and books to their phones, computers, iPads and Kindles; and the purchase of furnishings, new books and special programs.
“Our libraries have moved forward with the times,” Farrell said. “The big difference is when people change their methods of reading, the library changes, too.”