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Felix Adamo/ The Californian During the summer, weekly trips to the Beale Library are common for Steve Engel and his six year old daughter Julianne.

Christina Bedell and her four kids head to the library far more frequently these days as the bookstore is too expensive to satisfy each's 10-book-a-week habit.

Those spur-of-the-moment trips to Kern County's Southwest Branch Library may prove more difficult starting Aug. 1, when new hours take effect and the library is only open four days a week.

Budget woes have forced library officials to slash hours countywide by 41 percent and staff by 31 percent, resulting in 27 layoffs.

Most libraries will be open just two or three days a week.

Director of Libraries Diane Duquette said the cuts, which total about $2 million, are the system's largest in decades.

"The amounts overall are devastating," Duquette said. "People depend very heavily on libraries -- it's going to be a hardship for many people in this county."

The drastic cuts come as library use is up. Duquette attributes the increase in part to the poor economy, as people think twice about paying for a book they can check out from the library.

Jim Price, a personal trainer, spends about an hour every day on Southwest Branch computers. He got tired of paying for internet at home, so he goes to the library.

Southwest will reduce its operating hours from 56 to 32 a week and be open four days a week instead of six.

Branch Supervisor Heather Eddy noticed a "tremendous" increase in library usage several months ago. She said checkout lines have been longer and many people are using the computers to search for jobs.

"It's like they discovered the library for the very first time," Eddy said.

Bedell, a stay-at-home mom, said the library provides something fun and educational for all of her kids, who range in age from 4 to 14.

"To me it's important because it's a learning experience to take them to the library," Bedell said. "Every choice they make reflects who they are."

Bedell said library trips will now take more planning and may cost more in gas money if she has to drive to another location.

Southwest Library volunteer Doris Duquette said the place is never slow. The computers are always full and she sometimes can't get into the back room because it's so packed with books to be reshelved.

Doris Duquette, a retired director of libraries for the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District, said the library is a vital educational experience for kids. She said students use public libraries year round because school libraries close in the afternoon when school is out.

"They are just cutting the heart out of our learning system because without being able to read, children can't do anything," Duquette said. "When you take away their source of materials you are taking away their biggest incentive -- because coming to the library for a lot of kids is a great treat."

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