The Contemporary Public Library


I’ve been in Los Angeles this past weekend taking care of business for my upcoming move to the United Kingdom and took the opportunity to stop by one of my favorite places, the Santa Monica Public Library. The library spent the last four or so years being reconstructed and has done a delightful job reinventing itself into a modern institution to serve it’s community. I also recently picked up a Berkeley Public Library card and have noticed the similarities between Berkeley and Santa Monica as cities, perhaps this has eased my transition to the other side of the San Francisco Bay. (Berkeley is slightly younger and independent, Santa Monica is slightly yuppie-er and tourist-y.)

My earliest memories of a public library were from my local library, the Mar Vista branch of the Los Angeles Public Library–which has also underwent a major multi-year renovation. They used to have a little snake living in a terrarium right in front of the check out desk and plenty of children-oriented programming. Those days, before Barnes and Noble and Borders Books, the two large rooms were more books that I could have ever imagined (and the concept of a paperback book was quite novel amid the library-bound-and-rebound copies). The library was a gathering place for children, a place to study and research for teenagers, and perhaps primarily a place to browse for adults. It was a lot simpler then: libraries had lots of books and the occasional story-time for children.

How times have changed since then.

The Mar Vista branch has transformed into a spacious high-ceiling building with ample sunlight and as much space dedicated to computer terminals and multimedia (CDs, DVDs, VHS) as to actual books. The snake is gone, but children’s reading programs seem to remain one of the central goals of the library. Along with it are programs for ESL (English-as-a-second-language) patrons, special interest groups, and community service. My little corner library of kindergarden has transformed into a veritable social hub for the community.

The Santa Monica Public Library (from the Santa Monica Seascape)

Meanwhile, the Santa Monica main library, which has always been the flagship public space for the city’s yuppies and eccentrics (and yuppie-eccentrics) alike, has modernized its facility to include a coffee shop, courtyard, and ample sunlight. Didn’t librarians of yore fear sunlight as the bane of book preservation? Several years and the development of acid-free paper later, the focus of the library has shifted from the dungeon of the ivory tower to a central public meeting space. While the SMPL has always been one of the city’s community centers, the architectural redesign opens it up as a space to the people.

Again, a library patron of the the previous generation would be shocked to hear that such a huge rennovation project has resulted in less space for actual books, but the library is now a safe (and free) place to study, get involved in clubs and community groups, browse magazines and newspapers, and check out popular DVDs.

The role of the public library has changed in the past twenty years and it is only recently (in L.A. at least) that their architecture and infrastructure have started to reflect those changes. This is in apparent contrast to university libraries, which remain a bastion for scholarly journals and a canon of standard textbooks and references. Put in another way, a public library has become a wonderful place to browse for books/magazines/DVDs, while university libraries are places where one can find a particular book or journal.

Again the Internet has played a role in ushering in this change. The range of holdings of a municipal library system can easily be checked through online catalogs and then specially requested, allowing city libraries to decrease duplicate copies of items in different branch locations. Thus, those who seek a particular item can search online. More likely, however, you can access such items through commercial venues such as Barnes & Noble or, who have rolled over independent booksellers in their sheer breadth of inventory. As such, the library has become a place to browse books while mega-bookstores have become the “place” to find books.

As it stands, however, the public library has not yet found an equilibrium in its role in the community. The library has become inextricably linked with the development of new technological paradigms: it is a hub for free, public internet/DVD access that has made it a point to bridge the digital divide while taking advantage of the technology to serve its community. The Santa Monica library has recently arranged for the online “checkout” of audio books via remote download, for example, allowing me to listen to audio book recordings from Santa Monica that I can download in Berkeley. The physical space of the library has, in this instance, become independent of its capacity for distributing information.

So what will become of the public library? Companies such as Google have begun ambitious projects to digitize the wealth of human knowledge (i.e. to create a library of scanned, searchable books) and projects such as Wikipedia and even the arXiv have developed new paradigms for how scholarly information is created and distributed. Will the Santa Monica Public LIbary of 2050 be nothing more than a computer cluster?

As I sat at a table grading papers for Berkeley’s summer quantum mechanics course, I found myself bypassing the copy of Schiff on the physics shelf and going directly to the internet to clear up a question. Quick, factual questions can be handled by Wikipedia. Basic calculations and values for physical constants are already built into Google. For heavier things, there’s always a copy of the course notes online (and, in relevant university libraries, copies of Mathematica). Seeing how I passed up the library cafe, I might as well have been sitting back in my room.

Of course, that was the whole point. I wasn’t in my room. I was in a different physical space. It was a place that I had grown to associate with a quiet, conducive environment for going through chapters of homework reading. It was also a place where I could take a break and catch up on magazines that I didn’t subscribe to, or to explore books on whatever topics happen to correspond to the aisle next to my desk. (I did notice that the new SMPL floorplan fostered more “featured books/topics” displays.) For others the library was a place to get homework tutoring, or to stop and have a coffee (somewhat novel), or to pick up a movie for the evening (and perhaps a recipe for dinner), or to access the internet, or even just a place to spend part of the day that isn’t on the street (even after 4 years I recognized some of the SMPL regulars). As I see it, the municipal library (much in contrast to the university library) has not only become a multipurpose facility, it has become an essential ingredient for a healthy community.


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