BOSTON — If visitors to Chicago's Beyond Words Cafe can't find the words to describe the restaurant's sumptuous pasta and curry dishes, a whole stack of thesauruses isn't far away.
At the beaux arts Harold Washington Library Center, readers with epicurean cravings can feast on high cuisine and Hemingway in the library's new glass-domed cafe. And for do-it-yourself chefs, there is George Jewell, the cafe's caterer. He teaches weekly cooking classes using recipe books from the library's collection.
As the cafe's name suggests, public libraries are nowadays doing a lot more than just lending words on paper. In many cities across the country, they are lending their visitors a lifestyle.
Determined not to be left behind by the rapid inroads of mega-bookstores and information technology, the library is rummaging well beyond the card catalogue in search of innovative approaches.
"In some respects, the urban libraries are going through a renaissance, even in tough neighborhoods," says Jane Williams, acting director of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, a federal agency.
Indeed, libraries are doing a variety of things to keep themselves alive and vital despite growing competition. For example:
* In Miami, the World Series champion Florida Marlins baseball team provides 5,000 pairs of tickets every summer to the Miami Public Library. Any child who reads 10 books or more gets one.
* At the Cambridge (Mass.) Public Library, staff members are gearing up for the library's starring role as Saturn - yes, the planet - in the Boston Museum of Science's "Passport to the Universe" program. Nearby, at the McAuliffe Library in Framingham, Mass., a check-out counter featuring first-run movies spares browsers the trip to Blockbuster.
* At the central branch of the Multnomah County Library System in Portland, Ore., a new overdue-book policy has met with great success. "Better Latte Than Never" is the gentle admonishment inscribed on 65,000 postcards sent recently to delinquent borrowers by the library's six-month-old, in-house Starbucks cafe. In a sop - make that a sip - to laggards, the store promised a free hot beverage to bookworms who turned in their hoarded tomes.
More than 35,000 books came in, boasts Leo McCloud, the library's entrepreneurial activities coordinator. His idea helped to bring the nation's first Starbucks to the stacks.
Across from the wood-and marble-paneled cafe, a gift shop entices the bibliophile who wants everything, with curios such as "Curious George" backpacks to hand-tooled leather desktop blotters.
Texts and toy taxis
As the idea changes of what a library is and what it should provide, more and more libraries are getting into the act.
Even the august New York Public Library runs two gift shops on Fifth Avenue that display, among their less urbane fare, yellow matchbox-size taxi cabs. "People might say that's a stretch," acknowledges the stores' manager, Hope Van Winkle. "But it's fun and it does engage the kids. I try to take a lighthearted approach."
And for the first time, private corporations like Microsoft and PNCBank, among others, are playing major roles in urban library renewals. In Philadelphia, officials are two-thirds of the way through a $50 million overhaul of the city's 52-branch Free Library system. Library officials say the changes have brought in more visitors, and World Wide Web surfers these days far outnumber stragglers. In the once-moldering Lehigh Avenue branch, three blocks south of a crime-ravaged neighborhood known as the Badlands, Il Delis, a college student, sat in a sunny, spacious computer lab on a recent weekday learning about word-processing.
As for Chicago, Library Journal recently anointed Mayor Richard Daley its "politician of the year" for his efforts in opening 18 new public libraries over the past four years. The feedback has been nothing short of thunderous, says Mary Dempsey, the commissioner of the Chicago Public Library.
"Every time we build [a new library] and open it, the letters we get are that 'this is the most important thing to happen in my neighborhood. My children can do their homework, my bestsellers are on the [Web].' " There's a "fair sense that the schools aren't working but the libraries are."
That libraries should be relishing their newfound prominence now, at a time when information access reigns as the catch phrase of the moment, is hardly a surprise to some. Until personal computers become universally affordable, the logic goes, the library will remain the haven of choice for the unwired.
"For people who don't have stuff at home, the library will become the most important thing for them," says Theodore Hershberg, a professor of public policy and history at the University of Pennsylvania. "For the information have-nots, it's a window on the world."
That, however, may not explain the flowering of gift shops, cafes, book talks, and self-improvement seminars in many libraries. But here, too, Mr. Hershberg has a theory, one that he traces to the so-called Chautauqua syndrome. Chautauqua is a quaint old town perched on a pristine lake an hour outside of Buffalo, N.Y., known as a cultural and intellectual retreat. Hershberg calls it "an urban village devoted to knowledge ... a temple of poetry."
Libraries, Hershberg says, are modern-day microcosms of Chautauqua, pockets of intellectual uplift amid society's growing monotony. "There is such a dearth of interesting information out there ... everything is dumbing down," he adds. "The more we become an electronic cottage, the more we thirst for human interaction."
A meeting place
Other library officials nationwide agree with Hershberg's thesis. As more people plug into the Internet, "there is more of a demand for the ability to come together and have meetings and book discussion groups," says June Eiselstein, assistant to the director for Community Services at the Boston Public Library, where author Garrison Keillor recently drew an overflow crowd. "The library's becoming more of a meeting place for groups and communities."
And bookselling superstores like Borders, and Barnes and Noble, may not be competitors in this scheme after all, says Ms. Dempsey, the Chicago library commissioner. But she adds that the lines between the two are not always clear to the public.
"My favorite moment at my local Barnes and Noble," she says, "was when someone came in with an armful of library books and asked, 'Where do I return these?' "