More Library Dreaming

I posted this today to a community mailing list, in an exchange sparked by the observation that there are no bookstores within walking distance of our large, densely populated urban neighborhood. We don’t warrant favor from the powers-that-be at Barnes & Noble, and independent bookstores can’t thrive. Someone talked about the need for “third places” in our community, and proposed the library. I responded:

Libraries… now there’s a subject I’m passionate about. Libraries are not what they could be. They are designed like municipal spaces, where business is conducted as quickly as possible, not like places to enjoy. Many of our libraries are hideous on the inside. I support the Queens library foundation not because I have a hope that things will improve, but as a stopgap against the total disappearance of the library.

The trouble with the library as a third place (great concept, btw) is that libraries are meant to be quiet. Obviously that isn’t true of the Sunnyside branch, but the space itself does nothing to inspire reverence for literature and the written word. Who can fall in love in a place like that?

Imagine if the library were designed like B&N–large, inviting tables featuring curated selections, walls of new hardcovers, seating throughout, warm lighting, a cheerful kids section, and a cafe that’s attached but somewhat separate so that conversations won’t disturb browsers.

Of course, for this to happen would require a much greater commitment to civic life than can be found in society today. (Which could lead into a discussion about movie theaters, but I ought to see to my baby.)

7 thoughts on “More Library Dreaming”

  1. Although my current library is tiny, they recently redesigned it to be a lot like a cheaper version of B&N (they don’t have a cafe yet, but they’re planning on one). One whole wall of the library is windows, with a gorgeous view, so now they have two couches making a reading nook facing it! That one’s my favourite. 🙂 They also have a table w/ seasonal recommendations of movies, music, and books and a younger kid’s room and an older kid’s section. I love it there, and so does my niece!

  2. Great suggestions, and great connection w/ the idea of “third place.” To add a few thoughts on what can pull people in library doors and keep them there for a while: I am a book nut but very often have been pulled into an unfamiliar (or familiar) library by something OTHER than a direct desire to read books. E.g., In 2002, I was pulled into the NYPL for the Performing Arts @ Lincoln Center, intending only to see their exhibition on Kurt Weill; I remained in the library for a many extra unplanned hours, when I discovered their amazing sheet music collection then sat and read a history of the “Saturday Night Live” TV show. In 2004, I trekked to the Jamaica Queens library, intending only to see a rare show of artworks by Zelda Fitzgerald; I ended up hanging around there long after viewing it, and discovered what a diverse music CD collection the branch has. Two weeks ago, I was pulled in the doors of the NYPL Humanities /Soc. Sci branch @ 42nd & 5th, intending only to see their exhibition on graphic modernism in Eastern Europe; I enjoyed the show so much that I surprised myself by plunking down $27 afterwards in the gift shop on the show’s catalog. I could think of many other examples.

    In other words, as you rightly (I think) suggest, many communities need to put into place a much less narrow vision of what libraries are and can be. Something like a library cafe could work synergistically (awful & overused word, sorry), to increase the comfort level of the place and to draw in more, new readers to the building and stacks. Libraries could start to steal back some of the privatized space now gobbled up by Starbucks, B&N and internet cafes. What’s needed of couse if more $$, more physical space and, as you rightly say, a greater commitment to civic life. Thanks.

  3. I cannot say enough about my local libraries. The branch libraries are cool (they all have “cold” seating and warm seating areas), but our main library also boasts a cafe and gift shop. They all have book sales (where I purchase alot of books, videos and magazines at crazy cheap prices), but also great events. Last weekend they had a huge reading fest for kids with local celebrities reading books, book characters (like Clifford and Curious George) to entertain the children and just a fun time for kids. If you can get past the sometimes antiseptic feel of the library, I think they are a readers best friend. A librarian’s are the best for recommendations.

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