The Fresno County Public Library is a special place with 34 branches throughout Fresno County. The library’s motto? “A place to grow.”
The library is a place for anyone with something for everyone holding to its powerful mission to enrich lives and build community, which it does quite well throughout the year, transforming and strengthening communities with opportunities that help people connect and be inspired.
Yet, sadly, not every community has a library.
The Tower District, for example, does not have one of its own. However, this could change thanks to a group of local library lovers who have started a quickly growing grassroots movement to get a branch in their own backyard.
Brooke Payton, an instructor and board member at Root Access in the Tower District, is leading the cause. An avid library lover, she regularly visits libraries wherever she goes and carries around a scrapbook full of library memorabilia.
“I am a book lover and a library lover, a lover of the library system, what it adds to the culture where it is located, as well as the art and displays that are in the library,” she says. “I love all the aspects of a library.”
She’s also quick to say that all her efforts are community-based advocacy and that she’s not affiliated with the library, the City or the County and does not receive any related funding. Yet, her passion for libraries is contagious.
“To me, a library is more than just a stack of books. It is a cultural place that provides community enhancement.
“It does a great deal to create educational and economic opportunities, making Wi-Fi, computers, Internet, copiers and scanners available. There are people in our community who cannot afford any of those things but need them in order to find employment or supplement [their] education.
“The library can also be a safe space—something that we desperately need more of for our children, elderly, disabled and LGBTQIA+.”
The Tower District has not always been library-less. For years, there was a branch on Olive Avenue at a west 100 block storefront. The Gillis Branch Library was founded in 1940 in a one-bedroom apartment in the Tower District, but since 1975 it has been at a commercial building at Fruit and Dakota avenues in central Fresno, across the street from Williams Elementary School. It’s a nice little branch that world-famous Fresno writer William Saroyan frequented.
Of course, that branch serves its residents well and is a much needed community nexus with an active Facebook page to prove it—but that doesn’t help today’s vibrant Tower District. The Gillis Branch is about three miles from the heart of the Tower District.
That makes the Central Branch in downtown Fresno the closest library to Tower residents, about two miles away. But if you’re a Fresnan without a car, it’s too long of a walk to either branch. It’s clear that the Tower District needs its own library—again.
“We have five elementary schools in Tower, and all of these children essentially don’t have access to a public library since one is not in the neighborhood,” Payton explained in a recent podcast interview.
“They’re missing out on supplemental education opportunities, year-round events and all the summer programs that libraries organize and offer. It’s a serious problem.
“We have underserved veterans, senior citizens, disabled people and children. What’s great about Tower is its walkability or bikeability. We have tons of restaurants, shops and entertainment. What we don’t have is a general-purpose library.”
So, what can be done about that?
The Fresno County Public Library could simply create another branch and put it in the Tower District. But it’s not that simple, even with Measure B county funds allocated for libraries. There is much planning and budgeting involved. Moreover, there are other locations that have been requesting a library for years and are first in line—such as Reedley and Highway City.
Another option is to move the Gillis Branch back to the Tower District, but that would disenfranchise the local residents who actively depend on it now in their neighborhood. However, moving the Gillis Branch somewhere else nearby could be a good idea and is something that even the librarians there support as the branch has outgrown its old storefront and the atmosphere immediately around it has changed over time. Currently, the branch shares a space next door to the Funkyshack Smoke Shop—hardly the best neighbor for a library. Moving the branch closer to the Tower District could be a compromise.
Another viable option is to place a micro-branch library in an existing community space in the Tower District. One such space could be the Ted C. Wills Community Center, where the Talking Book Library for the Blind is located. A micro-branch would be a good addition to the community center.
The Fresno County Board of Supervisors (BOS) would have to vote on any option with the recommendation of the Fresno County librarian, Raman Bath. The decision ultimately boils down to demographics and need. And Bath is not opposed.
When appointed librarian by the BOS in 2019, Bath said, “I believe the public library’s responsibilities don’t end at our walls, but extend anywhere our services are needed to everyone in the community.” Clearly, if the community need for a library can be demonstrated, there is hope for one in the Tower District.
Payton is hopeful but also realistic. “I understand that my request will take years, like the other places that have asked for a library—it requires lots of planning and money. This isn’t gonna happen next year; it might not even happen in five years. This might take a long time, but I am building a framework, doing the groundwork.”
Payton’s team has created an online petition in support of a library for the Tower District, which can be accessed at towerlibrary.org.
“We have about 1,000 signatures now,” Payton acknowledged. “But I want a million signatures—a million plus! I want people who don’t even live in the county to say that they support the project because they just love libraries.”
The people of the Tower District care about the history of the Tower District—a history that includes the Gillis library creation. And, today, the need for another one is dire.
“The [residents of the] Tower District have proven that they care about the Tower District,” Payton affirmed. “And because we have proven that, it should lend weight to this desire to bring a library back.”
It is time to resurrect a library for the Tower District.