A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone. ~Jo Godwin
I finally have it, the ultimate answer. I have put my finger on the proverbial pulse of the world and discovered how to halt the decline of civilization as we know it. Public Libraries! Not the sexiest notion I’ll grant you, but this venerable institution’s importance should not be underestimated. I didn’t, couldn’t, understand this idea until today, because it took until today for the evidence to be placed in front of my eyes. I have just visited the Promised Land, you see.
Public Libraries seem to have largely gone by the wayside in our society. Once one of the “go to” locations in every town, today they are a destination for a small, but dedicated, group of devotees and an infrequently visited location for everyone else. Many blame this unfortunate turn of events on the development of technology – especially the internet – noting the easy availability of information and a social decline in the skills necessary to properly utilize libraries’ resources. This, I believe, is incorrect.
I blame the demise of this “center of learning” on the predominance of chain establishments like Starbucks, Panera Bread Company and the mall. These institutions have overtaken our libraries as the gathering places for our community. I don’t think this was an unintentional or unsought eventuality by the various business strategists employed by these companies. I think that they meant for this to happen. How else can the easy availability of wireless internet, plentiful tables and absence of waiters hassling you to vacate your tables be explained? They want to provide a location for business meetings, remote employees, friends, senior citizens and others to “do their thing.”
One library that has clearly found a way to buck this trend and bring the community back where it belongs is the Blount County Public Library in Maryville, Tennessee. Its wonderful building is located right next to the public Greenbelt park and downtown Maryville. Immediately upon walking inside you know that you are in a special place. Large display cases abound, exhibiting local artwork, children’s projects and advertisements for the library’s considerable programs. Poetry reading, art exhibits, lectures, slide shows, plays and historic reenactments are just some of the programs provided to the public in the libraries various functions rooms. There is no “on Tuesday night Professor Josiah Smeggit will be speaking on his recent trip to the Eastern Boggy Swamp in search of the yellow spotted bunny-humper. Although his quest was completely unsuccessful his talk is filled with interesting and humorous anecdotes regarding his two-hour journey.”
Central to the library is a large lounge area with comfy seats and couches available for people to come and read one of the multitudes of newspapers and periodicals available. Current editions of said periodicals are also evident and there seem to be a considerable number of people who, judging from the amicable way they amble in and nod hello to the librarians and each other, come here regularly to read the paper. Large work spaces are also present with power, good desk lamps and wireless internet for the student in need of study space, remote workers sick of their hotel room and local residents who cannot afford the internet. Small study rooms could be reserved for students who wanted to group study and a special area is set aside for the genealogists among us who wanted access to the library’s considerable collection of local records. Each area of the library seems to have a name like “the Ida Mea Wrinklebottom Memorial Toilets,” exhibiting evidence of a well-developed fundraising strategy. Public Libraries, like public radio and television, long ago realized that their government funding was not going to cover improvements let alone their operating costs. So survival now depends on public support, and Blount County clearly supports its library. It isn’t just surviving, it’s flourishing.
The main body of the library is organized and clearly marked with signs. This may sound like an attribute common to every library the world over, but don’t be fooled. Because of poor signage I personally have, on many occasions, been searching for the “historical section” only to have a snooty librarian encounter me mired in the “life sciences” and staring at a copy of Women’s Vaginal Problems by Dr. Erasmus P. Dragon. Just as critical as signage is a working catalogue system, and Blount County has one of the best that I have ever seen. The greeting screen is not a confusing listing of Dewy Decimal numbers but a touch screen map with all the different sections clearly listed. For decimally challenged people like myself, this little map is pure genius and the inventor and his or her entire family will surely go to heaven!
But all of this pales in comparison to the following: this library has a coffee shop! It was this little edition alone that helped me realize that Starbucks is not only ruining the coffee and tea industry, but also siphoning off the library’s clientele as well. People want to have a cup of coffee and a cookie while they read. Not only is this little service providing valuable fuel for the bookworms scattered around me but it seems to be a nice earner for the library as well (there is only so much that late fees can finance). So the next time I walk into a Panera Bread Company and find a photocopier salesman checking his email, students working on a paper or a bunch of teenagers chatting and hanging out, I am going to have to stroll over and say, “Excuse me, have you ever considered for one moment not letting the man screw you with your pants on? Get out of this den of capitalism and go down to your local library, they have everything you need.” And then with my good deed done for the day, I will go and grab my venti moca-choca-latte-double-extra-special with whipped cream for 5 dollars. The library only has shitty coffee and I only drink the very best.