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Library as a cultural center - check it out

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 14, 1999



ROCKFORD, ILL.

Revisiting a childhood library, like going back to a childhood home, is an exercise in nostalgia. Long-ago rooms, colors, smells, and sounds, locked in the dusty attic of memory for decades, suddenly reappear as a returning pilgrim wanders through updated, now unfamiliar spaces.

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For me, the library reality check took place on an April Saturday. Just inside the Rockford Public Library, where I researched school term papers and first discovered favorite books, a large banner proclaims: National Library Week. Nearby, a small plaque reads: "This building was erected through the generosity of Andrew Carnegie. AD 1903."

Yet the building I enter bears no resemblance to the $70,000 edifice Carnegie funded. In the mid-1960s that imposing two-story structure in "modern Greek style," with columns gracing the front and a copper dome arching skyward, was gutted and remodeled. Only the exterior walls remain, encased now in limestone and granite for a "modern" look.

Today, heels that once clicked across bare floors are silenced by blue carpeting. And fingers that once flipped through oak drawers in the card catalog now tap computer keys for an online version.

Like libraries everywhere, this one long ago ceased being simply a plain-vanilla repository of the printed word. Libraries must now offer the intellectual equivalent of 28 flavors - something for everyone. Computer, CD-ROMs, cassettes, and videos compete for space.

On one floor of the Rockford library, a Job Center display focuses on careers and rsums. Another rack holds books in foreign languages. "Libros en Espaol," reads one sign. A bulletin board announces a spring book discussion series titled "The Immigrant Experience."

"We're becoming more like a cultural center," says Denise Delanty, a library staff member. "We're so busy."

A decade ago, fiscal crises forced some libraries to cut budgets, hours, and staff. Today, in a robust economy, the financial needs are less visible.

But as Ann Symons, president of the American Library Association in Chicago, says, "Funding is always an issue for libraries. They are being asked to do more with the same amount of money."

That makes philanthropists as essential as ever. "Andrew Carnegie in his day did more for public libraries than any other single person did," says Ms. Symons.

Today Bill Gates is contributing another kind of support - wiring libraries so they can provide computer services. The Gates Learning Foundation, Symons says, "has given the biggest single gift to libraries since Carnegie."

Still, no one becomes a librarian to get rich. A job-posting sheet in the Rockford library seeks a full-time librarian for day shifts and evenings. Candidates must hold a master's degree in library science. The job involves "work of moderate difficulty in performing reference services" and requires a "good knowledge of library science principles and techniques." The starting salary? Just $13.33 an hour.

"It's a profession that is really undervalued, and certainly there's much room for improvement in salaries," Symons says.

As librarians grapple with new and complicated issues - among them questions of intellectual freedom, and how to protect children from Internet pornography on library computers - their work seems more important than ever to anyone who cares about the printed word in all its forms.

While I miss the smell of paper and glue, progressive libraries have no room for nostalgia. Instead, the question hanging in the spring air is: How can book lovers in a technological age celebrate National Library Week? A few ideas:

Hug a book. Appreciate a librarian. Give silent thanks for all the benefactors, public and private, who have helped fund libraries over the years. Above all, take heart in the encouraging words of Symons: "The book is not dead, and it's not going to go away."