Libraries As Public Place: An Idea for Evanston


When I was a kid and the other kids were home watching "Leave it to Beaver," my father and step-mother were marching me off to the library. -- Oprah Winfrey
What’s at stake here is more than access to a room full of books. -- Josh Wallaert
Our community is being asked this weekend to "vote" on 100 ideas in the process. Regrettably, we've had scant opportunity to discuss or debate them. Even the ideas' proponents have had little chance to explain them. If time permitted I'd venture thought on many. Since time doesn't, I'll use this bandwidth to urge a vote for one imperfectly phrased but critical idea, No. 27 on the original list, "Establish branch libraries throughout Evanston."
The phrasing is imperfect because unless you read the explanation, it might suggest, as one critic put it, "building a branch library on every street corner." No one proposes that. The better explanation, available in the "long" version of the evanston150 list, is as follows: "Evanston currently has only one branch library, and that is available only part time. This proposal seeks to increase the number of branch libraries, locate them throughout the City, and keep them open longer hours in order to make library services and programs more accessible to all Evanstonians. Among other things, the branches can then serve as community resource centers, and reach out to engage everyone in literacy activities, for instance, hosting One Book, One Community programs."
I urge a vote for this Idea and write this post specifically to counter one of the most inaccurate arguments I've heard about Evanston libraries, namely, that "bricks and mortar" are "so 20th Century" and the idea of buildings should be discarded as we think about a library system of the future. Nothing could be further from the truth. The concept of place is fundamental to the importance of libraries anywhere, and is a compelling argument for libraries in neighborhoods, that reach all neighborhoods.

Preliminarily, let's dispense with the "so 20th Century" snipe. Leave aside for now whether the last decade of war, double bubble-bursts, gross inequality, and assault on liberties represents an actual improvement over the 20th century. Ignore for the moment the folly of measuring policy by its fashionability. Let's just address the statement.
The idea that electronic information has somehow rendered libraries passé is simply not true. In a thoughtful collection of essays on the role of the modern library, professionals correctly assert that computerization and digitalization are changing, "but will not destroy" libraries, and shouldn't, for several reasons.
First, the library is the "sole owner" of services that can't be replicated off-site. One is personnel, the reference librarians. Another is the hard-copy access itself, as most books are still not (and may never be) digitized, and periodicals are more and more inaccessible for free online. Yet a third, critical reason is the public place itself.
Part of that place is interior: in a world where it's increasingly difficult to escape the din of messaging, a library offers, traditionally, quiet. A library is an escape where youths, especially, can both relax and focus. As one student writes, the "ambience and the peaceful and scholarly atmosphere then helps one to concentrate more on one's work and study."
That internal place of refuge and respite figures large in adult reasons for libraries, too. Libraries are also a connecting place for adults, "a public space for individuals to meet formally and informally." This is "particularly beneficial for single parents who may struggle to meet new people."
Another key adult demographic is those reinventing themselves. Christina Peterson particularly identified the lifelong-learning function in her study of a joint-use library, shared by a community and a university. She found it used by patrons "in ways that imbue the space with cultural meaning, shared purpose, and pragmatic functionality," fulfilling the hopes of planners who envisioned the library having "five types of user activity for which space would need to be designed: information seeking, recreation, teaching and learning, connection, contemplation."
Community symbolism and identity flow from such places. A city planner this spring touted the degree to which libraries contribute to "a sense of place" and comes to the same economic conclusion as many others, that a library in a neighborhood "will continue to pay dividends back into the village."
That sense of identity is more than symbolic. Josh Wallaert, an editor at the design publication Places, reviewing a delightful photoessay of libraries by photographer Robert Dawson, says that the "modern American public library is reading room, book lender, video rental outlet, internet café, town hall, concert venue, youth activity center, research archive, history museum, art gallery, homeless day shelter, office suite, coffeeshop, seniors’ clubhouse and romantic hideaway rolled into one. In small towns of the American West, it is also the post office and the backdrop of the local gun range."
Part of the sense of place is transformative. One architect refers to a library (in the campus context) as a "vital and critical intellectual center of life." As regards a neighborhood, "center of intellectual life" might be more accurate. Multiple studies note the intellectual capital that a library both represents and actually adds. It also represents social capital, stemming in part from the fact that a library, as embodiment of the commons, represents the ultimate in collaborative consumption, or shared resources. Additionally, the very presence of a library standing in a neighborhood indicates "the presence of a well-read and educated society."
A library can only fulfill all these functions of place if that place exists in real space. Author Joan Wickersham speaks of a library's importance "as a real place." Spatial presence must be part of library strategy. As one academic review of a book on libraries' futures put it, "the stature of libraries will depend on the very fact that they are physical places that are centrally located in almost every neighborhood."
In 2005, two University of Chicago researchers analyzed 200 public libraries in New York City and found strong interactions, both ways, between the sociodemographics of a neighborhood, where libraries were located, and how libraries were used. They found multiple important reasons for "neighborhood public libraries," not least of which was that distance negatively impacted use. While disadvantaged communities used libraries less, the researchers found that improving that use would augment the human, economic, and cultural capital of disadvantaged neighborhoods, and that "when a library branch is integrated to be part of the neighborhood and provides a public place for social interaction within the neighborhood, the neighborhood will likely support the work of the branch."
These are not antiquated notions; every one of the above links is to a writing authored in the 21st Century. But moving forward into the future has never meant, and cannot mean, throwing away the best of the past. Wallaert notes that digital libraries cannot duplicate the many functions he identifies. Obviously, neither can a substitute such as a bookmobile or roving literacy booster.
The importance of library as place is real. The "idea" submitted by numerous Evanstonians to evanston150 was to establish a comprehensive library system that serves all neighborhoods. That does not mean a branch on every street corner, but it has to mean, in addition to a main branch located more northeast than centrally, a branch in the northwest and southeast quadrants along the train and bus lines where the North and South Branches existed for 50 and 100 years, respectively, and one or more library facilities serving the west/southwest portion of Evanston. The library square footage embodied in the proposal for a new Robert Crown center, and the former Washington Mutual space used as a summer reading spot at Dempster-Dodge, stand out as two obvious possibilities. Whether one or the other, both, or neither is the best solution is premature to say without more community input. One advantage of using existing space is that drywall is generally cheaper than new bricks and mortar. Regardless, the commitment should be made.
The "idea" as listed does not perfectly embody in its short phrasing the nuance and critical essence of place that such a network would embody, but it's the closest thing available on the list. The other 99 ideas range from brilliant to impossible, but don't forget to vote for this one. A real community is more than in the mind; it has to exist in real space as well.