There is a hot debate in my aunt’s town far away from my own where one woman has argued they ought to clear the way in the library for more digital services because “there are too many books…people no longer read…this is the technological age.”
It was a library I visited earlier that day. I walked around the homeless bodies lying along the pavement wall that separated the library from the paid parking lot. Glass doors slid open silently to welcome me, their black frames painted brown. The linoleum floor seemed to lead to nowhere in particular as meeting rooms, genealogy rooms, and other unfamiliar signs marked their glass cubicles. Around an unmarked corner lay the operating system of the library, its metal racks colored with the shade of yellow that is undeniably mod.
Oak-stained round tables (to fit four) punctuated the scene and end-capped the stacks. Rectangular tables (to fit six) were irregularly spaced down the middle of the wide open space.
Passing tables, computer stations and their chairs, I looked through the aisles and saw nooks along the walls with the sort of study/privacy screens that let others know your ears are off limits.
Finding the right space for me, I worked, without breaking focus for two solid hours, completing my to-do list. I shut down my computer, packed up my things and exited the way I came, holding my breath past the marijuana smoke, and walked on to played the tourist in this odd town.
That evening my aunt and I passed another library, housed within an 1893 Presbyterian Church in the Gothic Revival Style. It was small. “And hot…but out back its nice,” my aunt adds pointing to a green and sloping and variegated grounds up a narrow dirt path leading behind the little church. Down the road a newer, larger, workers erect a structure with a metal roof.
After many conversations spent joking with our Hughson librarians about all the character-filled buildings our library could move to, I wonder what that little tourist town will lose when the library goes from fitting its numerous books every which way highlighted with stained glass windows to a gardenless but fully-functioning space.
If a week goes by when I do not haul my hoard of children into Hughson’s library, the librarians wonder if everything is okay. We discuss town news, construction, and the changes they saw to our property as they drove by. Some days are more talkative than others. When you see anyone weekly and long enough, you witness their ups and downs.
Hughson’s library is housed in a ready-to-use building with threateningly-small parking spaces in front of it, challenging the minivans to give it a shot. Its stacks are not numerous, unlike the bigger branches, but in small talk discussions one has the opportunity to suggest new titles and, sometimes, those times of the year come around when librarians have the opportunity to request them.
Some seasons, there are daily crafts. It is not the quietest space as the branch manager excites children with off-the-cuff activities and no cubbies exist with a “leave me alone” message. There are very few tables, but one private corner where library regulars come in to read the Modesto Bee, and another padded bench ornamented with board books, throw pillows who have lived a long library life, and a play table the librarians hope will save the Dewey Decibel System from toddlers’ hands.
It feels safe to come here where my children are welcomed and loved, and over time, this library that is not our own space, becomes a third space. Conversations happen. Community is built. Books not present are ordered, read, and returned (with apologies when they are late). I have purchased magazines, Thomas the Train DVDs and picture books from the Friends of the Library sale rack behind the stacks.
Whether work space, community space, play space, or reading space, in our world today, the library goes beyond a place where books are housed. There are things a city can provide that change the face of that city, that benefit everyone and everyone should have access to, no matter their social status: public benches, parks, and libraries. They are the things that remain real even as much of our life is spent virtually. The library with all its books is a building for the common good, and we would not be complete without one.