Saturday, January 16, 2010

Renewing our commitment to public libraries

I am writing this post from Loutit District Library in Grand Haven, MI - one of the most beautiful local libraries (and towns) I have ever been in. As a high school student in neighboring Muskegon, MI, I came to Loutit on a weekly basis with my grandfather or my friends to purchase grocery-bags full of books in Cheapstacks, the used book store in the library's basement.

Once, some friends and I chipped in together to purchase a $5 bag of books and calculated that we had just paid 8.6 cents for each of the books we had bought - books that would go for five, ten, or fifteen dollars each in a for-profit used book store and for much more in a new book store. Many of the books that have set the course of my life, my thoughts, and my writings originally made their way to me through Cheapstacks or from the shelves of Loutit Library, the Norton Shores Branch Library in Muskegon, or the Lakeland Library Cooperative's inter-library loan network in West Michigan.

When I return to my family's home in Muskegon, I always sift through the shelves and boxes of books that I have so far been unable to bring with me, and I am constantly finding something new or forgotten - some book that I purchased on a whim, usually from Cheapstacks, many years ago - that has suddenly taken on new meaning and relevance in my life and my self-education. (My most recent post, on the out-of-print book High School Subjects Self-Taught, described one such find). Today, I purchased a stack of classic books by Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and others to make available to the high school students I teach in a school near Detroit: I'll place these on my desk and trade students a book for a promise that they will read it.

I cannot express strongly enough my belief in the importance of public libraries. I hope that the digitization craze, whatever its benefits and efficiencies (and they are many), does not delude us into thinking that our public libraries are expendable, or that Google Books, however amazing it is, will meet all our needs as readers and lifelong learners.

The truth is that many small, local public libraries in America have found themselves out of step with the times and with the needs of their communities; they have found themselves pushed to the margins of their communities, with sharply reduced hours and few new acquisitions. They are fighting a constant battle for financial survival - and they risk losing the debate about their relevance.

But a visit to Loutit Library can renew one's faith in the importance and the possibilities of local public libraries as integral parts of the educational infrastructure of communities. A few years ago, the Grand Haven community decided to make a massive investment in the library - completely renovating the building and building a new library almost from scratch. The community also fought against a proposal to tear the library from the heart of the community and move it to the outskirts of the city, leaving a hole in the historic downtown.

Today, I saw the results for the first time, and they are staggering: beautiful, spacious reading areas with ample natural lighting, well-designed artificial lighting, and comfortable chairs; a large public computing area; free wi-fi throughout the building; a fireplace; private study rooms; a "teen room"; a reference librarian; conference rooms where local groups and book clubs can meet; a filled calendar of free events; a large and well-stocked genealogy and local history room; and, of course, a remodeled Cheapstacks. Since the renovation, use of the library has surged by 35%. And the vast majority of what goes on in a library is self-education.

I have always liked the idea, expressed in the title of a recent book, that "good design can change your life"; the case of Loutit Library demonstrates that good design in libraries (and schools) - made possible by a commitment to invest the resources necessary to make good design possible - can change the educational life of a community.

See also:

Chad D. Lerch, "In a bad economy, residents are flocking to libraries," Muskegon Chronicle, 1/4/10.

Myron Kukla, "Library traffic surges as economy struggles," Grand Rapids Press, 12/27/09.

Cathy Runyon, "Hard choices ahead; local libraries face state revenue shortfalls," North Ottawa Weekly, 1/16/10.

Loutit District Library Homepage.

American Library Association.

Ryan McCarl, "Building the Educational Infrastructure," Wide Awake Minds, 11/13/09.