Bricks, books, and the Web: Towns redesign the library

Diane Hill has some seriously overdue library books.

"These have been sitting on my porch for a year," says the Quincy mom, hefting a shopping bag up the library stairs. "I tried to come before, but gave up."

What finally brought Mrs. Hill back wasn't the Thomas Crane Public Library's new slate-and-brick atrium or refinished antique furniture. It wasn't the 81 computers, or the new children's center - although her daughter loves Wednesday story hour.

"The best part about it is the parking lot," says Hill.

In fact, says director Ann McLaughlin, "more parking" was the No. 1 request she heard from residents about the $18 million expansion. They got it.

Techno-prophets said libraries were supposed to go the way of lamplighters and record-player repairmen. Instead, during the past few years, bookshelves have been flying up around the country faster than strip malls during the 1980s. In fact, in Quincy, a mini-mall was demolished to make more room for the books.

"Public libraries now are like the town green was 100 years ago," says Ms. Mclaughlin, whose circulation has already tripled since the renovated library opened a few weeks ago. Everyone from local artists to the symphony has called to schedule events in the atrium.

Not since Andrew Carnegie and J. Pierpont Morgan were naming entire city blocks after themselves has there been such a boom in library construction. An estimated 1,200 libraries were built from 1994 to the end of 2000, according to the Library Journal. Los Angeles alone is planning another 34 branches. The city of San Jose, Calif., just passed a $212 million referendum to fund library construction - the largest of its kind in US history.

At the same time that they're expanding their physical buildings, libraries are also reinventing themselves to better meet the needs of their communities. Particularly in cities, the stereotype of cramped stacks and dusty tomes has given way to colorful, airy spaces. Cafes are cropping up next to card catalogs. Convenience is the watchword, and visitors are far less likely to be "shushed."

For example, Quincy's library is open on Sundays for the first time since the 1930s, and the children's center is now on the ground floor, so parents no longer have to navigate stairs while juggling children, strollers, and an armload of books. The elderly and the housebound can have their selections delivered to their door.

San Jose's library is part of a pilot project to have virtual librarians available on the Internet 24 hours a day. Desperate high school students can log on to the library website at 3 a.m. to get help with a history paper. Los Angeles offers job and college fairs for high school students, as well as a comic-book festival, where 10,000 teens met with their favorite graphic artists and animators.

And some 17 million people troop through the branches of Queens, N.Y., libraries every year to read materials in 60-odd languages and partake of its toddler learning center and open-mike nights.

"This is the best time for public libraries that I remember in my entire [30-year] career," says Susan Kent, director of the Los Angeles Public Library, which serves the largest population in the US.

One cause of the building boom is self-evident: The economic expansion of the 1990s meant there was more money for, well, everything. And many branches, hard-hit by the recession, were in need of refurbishing. But another reason librarians cite for the country's well-worn library cards is more surprising: the Internet.

"The more Internet-access computers we put in, [the more] our circulation goes up. We can take books out to make room [for terminals] and our circulation still goes up," says Jane Light, director of the San Jose Public Library, whose circulation has grown 65 percent during the past five years. The computers attract people who ordinarily wouldn't have visited a library, she says. "They come in to use the Internet and walk out with books, or videos, or books on tape."

But while libraries have more services, space, and customers than ever, they are running short on one thing: staff. The roaring economy that made all the building possible also lured librarians to private corporations and law firms, where they could make more than $25,000 or $30,000 a year to start.

New York City had to close two branches due to a lack of staff, says Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association in Washington. In about five years, as more librarians hit retirement age, she says the problem will go from "serious to an epidemic."

And no one wants to predict what will happen if the country is hit with an extended economic downturn. As it is, not every town believes it can afford a spiffy new branch. A number, such as Milton, Mass., have recently voted down measures to fund libraries.

But librarians, who point out that they serve as a bridge over the digital divide for those who can't afford computers, say they believe people won't be willing to part with these new services. "Once you've used the Internet, you're not going to say 'OK, I'll give it up for a couple of years until the economy turns around,' " says Ms. Sheketoff.

And in the meantime, plans for expansion are continuing to be drawn up around the country.

"It was always a beloved institution," says Ms. Kent, who recently added a 3,800-square-foot teen center to her main branch. "We have had the opportunity now to re-create that traditional institution and add to it the whiz-bang of new technology."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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