Article California Cities Helen Putnam Award for Excellence By David Franz

One of California’s busiest libraries isn’t where you think it is

The city of Shafter won the 2023 Helen Putnam Award in the Intergovernmental Collaboration category. For more information about the award program, visit

Public libraries are essential institutions. When the only public library in Shafter seemed doomed to permanent closure, city leadership and residents got creative. Today, the once imperiled library is one of the busiest libraries of its size in the state — with new services and expanded hours to boot.   

A difficult chapter

Shafter, a city of just over 20,000, sits at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. It has a growing, young, and hard-working population who need a lot of books. But for most Shafter families, the cost of keeping readers stocked with books from Amazon or Barnes & Noble is not affordable. They rely on the public library.

Yet while communities like Shafter need public libraries more than most, funding libraries in this region has proven especially difficult. According to EdSource, the county has “the worst-funded county library system in the state,” with most branches only open two or three days per week.

In 2020, Shafter’s library suffered another blow. After closing the branch due to the COVID-19 pandemic, county officials decided the Shafter branch would remain closed due to budget cuts. Shafter leaders and community members rallied almost immediately.

“I felt compelled to speak up for my neighbors,” said parent-turned-library-advocate Katie Wiebe. “It’s heartbreaking to think of Shafter without its library.”

Thus the “Save the Shafter Library” movement was born. A petition circulated among residents, which collected over 1,000 signatures. Videos of support spread on social media and letters flooded county offices. Still, the closure moved forward.

Turning the page

Even before this crisis, there was interest in improving library services. In 2018, the city conducted a survey (1,135 responses), held focus group meetings (46 participants), and hosted a community event (over 400 participants) to talk about the library’s future. It was clear that the community valued library service, especially for children. What was less clear was how to reopen the library.

As a small city, Shafter did not have the expertise or funding to operate a library. There are no county taxes directly tied to the provision of library services, so taking responsibility for library operations would mean dipping into an already stretched general fund.

Nonetheless, the city council committed to finding a solution. “Supporting families is essential to community building,” Shafter Mayor Chad Givens said. “We need[ed] to provide spaces for Shafter families to learn and play together.”

Romeo Agbalog, a community college trustee, reached out to city leadership and asked how Bakersfield College could help. In the summer of 2021, a plan emerged. The county library would re-open as a city library. In turn, Bakersfield College would staff the library in exchange for using the facility to provide classes and student services in Shafter.

“Bakersfield College is deeply involved in education in Shafter,” Agbalog said. “I saw the closure of the library as a threat.”

For its part, the city contracted back-office library services and installed a self-checkout kiosk to reduce ongoing staffing costs. The combination of partnership, outsourcing, and technology allowed the city to take responsibility for library operations without hiring new staff. Recurring general fund expenditures are primarily limited to buying books and library software.

Meanwhile, community supporters launched an aggressive fundraising campaign to remodel and beautify the building. Their excitement attracted new partners. Roofing manufacturer GAF, which has a large plant in Shafter, donated a learning plaza, a children’s reading room, a classroom, and three new murals. A local woodworker and a welding shop worked together to create unique, beautiful, and durable furniture.

The community also helped expand the book budget and add seven more murals to the building. In all, supporters raised over $500,000 to remodel the building and update the collection. The library didn’t just reopen. It was reborn as the Shafter Library & Learning Center.

A new chapter

On Jan. 18, 2022, the library officially opened with a new schedule. Instead of limited hours, it is open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. every weekday — more than the original public library was open for in decades and more than any other public library in Kern County.

The Shafter Library & Learning Center is now one of the busiest public libraries in California for its size. In the 2022-23 fiscal year, it hosted over 1,500 regular educational programs, which attracted 9,300 visitors. Another 297 special events — author visits, literacy festivals, and art nights — brought 3,152 people to the facility. The library’s total foot traffic was 48,301.

To put these numbers into perspective: Per square foot of space, the Shafter Library & Learning Center was the fifth busiest in the state for foot traffic and the top library in the state for program attendance.

The library also supports community education in other ways. It provides local preschools with a rotating collection of books, offers parents early reader book bags, and invites local elementary schools to the library for field trips — with library cards ready for students when they arrive. Local schools take turns hosting evening meetups for students and families. And by bringing services to the rural community, Bakersfield College library staff have lowered barriers to college and boosted Bakersfield College enrollment.

Perhaps the most meaningful indicator of the library’s success is the wonder that children experience as they enter a space that is for them. Children proudly point out the part of a mural they helped paint or their artwork on display in the building. As one student said: “We learn here, but it’s not like school. It’s fun!”

David Franz is the director of the Education Partnership Department for the city of Shafter. He can be reached at (661) 746-5042 or Watch this video for an overview of the project.