The 3-year-old Lafayette Library and Learning Center is an architectural delight, a multilevel marriage of masonry, wood and glass that catches the natural light and sprinkles it across 31,000 square feet housing a teen center, technology lab, meeting rooms, children's story corner and private reading areas.
The Vincent A. Davi Memorial Library in Pittsburg, built 46 years ago, is a one-story, brick-and-mortar job, dwarfed by the gleaming courthouse next door, in which a dozen book stacks, 10 work tables and a children's reading area are crammed into about 7,000 square feet.
All of which is to say: Not all Contra Costa County libraries are created equal.
Library officials have heard the complaints about the disparity in facilities.
"It certainly comes up when a new library opens, and there's a lot of visibility and buzz," said Contra Costa County deputy librarian Gail McPartland. "When Lafayette and Walnut Creek opened, we heard from other communities: 'Can we have one, too?'"
The county operates more than two dozen branches, stretching from San Pablo to Brentwood to San Ramon -- with smaller outlets in Rodeo, Crockett and Bay Point -- and they are as different in appearance as they are in services offered.
The Walnut Creek facility, which opened in 2010, permits one hour of free Internet access to as many as 58 users at a time. The number for that service in Moraga is slightly smaller: two.
The Danville library is open 60 hours each week, the Antioch library 35. The Bay Point outlet is barely open at all -- 18 hours -- including 3½-hour time blocks (2:30 -- 6 p.m.) on Monday and Friday.
This might be viewed as yet another example of the contrasting lifestyles of haves and have-nots. But it's not really as harsh or as simple as that.
First, the buildings that house each branch almost always are owned by the cities and paid for by their residents and fundraising groups. Walnut Creek, for instance, paid the lion's share of its $39 million facility, aided by a $5 million donation from the Walnut Creek Library Foundation.
"You see someplace beautiful like Lafayette," said McPartland, "and you wonder why every library isn't like that. It's because the city of Lafayette found a way to fund and build that library."
A community's willingness to supply funding also accounts for the disparity in operating hours. The county pays for 35 hours of staffing for the vast majority of branches, and each municipality decides how many more hours it chooses to fund.
This is where library regulars in Pinole will pipe up. Yes, we know that branch is open only 24 hours per week. That's because the city doesn't absorb facility costs. The county cut back staffing expenses to pick up that tab.
What often gets lost in the debate over haves and have-nots is that all cardholders can access any resource in the system. There are nearly 500,000 cardholders, by the way.
"One of the chief advantages of a library card in Contra Costa County is that it is good at any branch," McPartland said. "You can use any library, and you can ask for materials from anywhere in the system and have them brought to the library where you would like to pick them up -- usually within three to five days."
Martinez remodeled its library last summer. Concord, among other cities, longs to build a new facility, but ...
"The reality is you have to have a lot of community support to get one up and running," McPartland said.
Meanwhile, hang on to your library card. It's good at any branch you want.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.