“A library is a place where the community comes to see itself.” –Patrick Remer
At a physical therapy appointment recently, my physical therapist, Allison, a self-proclaimed book nerd, and I got onto the subject of college. She said didn’t have any interest in going to college. I asked why. “I don’t know. I was really into my boyfriend at the time and I guess I was all about living in the present,” she replied. Her parents begged her with an aspirated “please just go to college.” She reluctantly started visiting schools. She took one look at the Sonoma State University library, and exclaimed, “Yeah, I could totally rock that library!” It sealed the going-to-college deal for her. The library at Sonoma State University–its contents sure, but more so the aesthetics of the building itself–changed the course of Allison’s life.
Now a doctor of physical therapy, Allison said she still thinks Sonoma State’s is one of the most beautiful libraries she has ever seen. She went to graduate school at the University of Southern California and she said she was excited to rock their library too, but “it just wasn’t the same,” she sighed, her shoulders drooping with disappointment.
Libraries occupy a central physical, and intellectual, space in all of our schools and communities. The library is a place for gathering: resources, media, narratives, groups, and ideas. We all have physical library memories from some point in our lives (I wrote about some of mine here). Just last week, my friend, Jes, told me about her recent library flashback. It was triggered when she watched her daughter pull a picture book off the shelf at the Lafayette Library and Learning Center. Jes said she found herself looking around for the coffee can of paint sticks. At her childhood library, they kept paint stirring sticks in cans around the children’s shelves to be used as place markers. Jes described the tin coffee can, the wooden sticks, and how they looked sticking out low and long among the spines in vivid detail. She even reenacted the motion of sticking them in between the books as she talked. Jes said she wanted to bring some stirring sticks with her next time for her daughter to use. It makes me smile to think of the two of them jabbing sticks into the stacks. And I love this idea of passing down physical memories.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Pleasant Hill Library’s Senior Community Library manager–and storyteller extraordinaire–Patrick Remer. This is how he described his first library memory:
The scent and touch of the library book seems to pre-date everything else. Lots of people talk about the tactility of reading in print (especially when defending why they prefer not to read on a tablet). But for me, that tactile sensation goes back to before I could read and hold a book myself: watching my father gently find the corner of a page to turn it (he always had rough mechanic’s hands), or the care with which my mom would help us choose a picture book from the shelf. I am lucky that I get to see these tender moments play out again and again every day.
Patrick grew up with the Pleasant Hill Library. His parents “bought their house up the street from the library, because it was up the street from the library.” He continued: “We didn’t have a lot of money, though we had a lot of books, mostly library books! I learned to read from those books, my model of the world is based on those books.”
I owe a debt of gratitude toward my childhood public library, but for me the pull was its contents, not so much the building. The building itself was nondescript. I used my community library for its books. I would use other libraries for various other resources, but I can’t say, like Allison, that I’ve ever taken one look at a library and thought about how much I could “rock” it. Patrick said: “I used the library for school assignments and pleasure reading for decades, and now the library is more a way for me to connect and give back to my community. It’s less about what I read and more about who I encounter.”
It’s less about what I read and more about who I encounter.
And perhaps, I would add, also about the space–actual and metaphorical–that we experience.
Patrick also said:
I used to marvel at my library as an epic house of books. But it is a house of people. One of the heroes of our profession, S.R. Ranganathan, said that “Books are for use.” Collections have value because people come to play with the ideas and these ideas in turn inspire new thoughts. All the millions of stories that we preserve will never add up to the countless things that humanity will dream up in generations to come.
I know rationally that a lot has changed, mostly because of new technology that has changed how information is stored and discovered and shared. But mostly I think that I have changed and that my perspective has changed. People have, and always will, love a good story. My curiosity about the world and other people will never be satisfied. The library will always offer a place for these things. Depending on how you look at it, everything has changed, or very little at all!
In terms of the facility, very little has changed about the current Pleasant Hill Library since it was built in the early 1960s (The Pleasant Hill Branch Library was first opened in an old elementary school in the mid ‘50s). I actually wasn’t sure I was at the library the first time I sought it out. The low-slung unassuming building sits back from Oak Park Boulevard. There is no prominent signage near the street or in the parking lot (an unlined, pothole-ridden shell of its former self). I remember creeping toward the entrance with my son in tow, glancing around for clues to tell me that I was in the right place. It was Patrick switching the neon sign from closed to open that reassured me.
When I learned that Pleasant Hill Library has served as the Contra Costa County Central Library headquarters for the last 50 plus years, I was stunned and baffled. Contra Costa County is one of the region’s most affluent counties, and its central library headquarters is so…unremarkable (that is soon changing as the County prepares to relocate its County Library Administration to a new building). I thought perhaps my community library standard was skewed by the beauty and grandeur of the New York Public Library branches until a friend of mine, who grew up in Pleasant Hill, asked if I had seen the nonfiction section in the back of the library with its “industrial bookshelves” he laughed.
Turns out, the current Pleasant Hill Library started out as a small community reading room (the short rotunda that so many patrons love) adjacent to a warehouse for a roving collection that the County circulated between its community libraries. (Read more about the chronology of the library here.) As the interlibrary loan process developed, the county parked that roving collection at the Pleasant Hill Library facility. According to the lengthy 2003 Pleasant Hill and Contra Costa County Library Community and County Library Needs Assessment and Preliminary Analysis of Site Options (and breathe):
Due to the nature and organizational structure of the Central Library, Pleasant Hill’s community has not been served as other communities are by their libraries. In general, there has been more emphasis on advanced reference and unique nonfiction collections in Pleasant Hill, and less attention given to reading, library events and programs, and services to families, children and youth. (p. 5)
That from an assessment conducted 12 years ago. Just think how much technology has changed our world in 12 short years, never mind how much technology has changed our library experience in that same time.
What is the old adage? Never judge a book by its cover? We all do it anyway. Turns out I am not alone in feeling underwhelmed by the current space. “A number of individuals commented that the library’s exterior is actually a deterrent to use. People who see the outdated facility assume that it does not contain current materials and technology, and therefore is not of use to them” (Needs Assessment, 2003, p. 35).
It’s a fact: Pleasant Hill needs a brand new library. The current space was at the time of the 2003 Needs Assessment already beyond repair. It is up to our community to both envision and help build the best new library we can. The Needs Assessment (in circulation for your reading pleasure, call number 022.1 PLEASANT) and the current Library Task Force are good starts, but the work toward a new library must continue with all of us as our community, its needs–and the library’s role in both–continue to evolve. The reinvention of the Pleasant Hill library deserves our thoughtful input, attention, and yes, our dollars and cents too, because our library space offers up so much to each and every one of us. As Patrick put it: “Pretty much the whole world is blasting us with messages about what to think and do and buy, but a library flips that completely. It’s just a playground or an open field that says: you can discover me if you want.” When I let that sentiment settle within me, I feel so light and so liberated. I mean, imagine that! A library is a gift that keeps on giving. And it’s available, for free, to all of us.
The great thing about talking with Patrick about the Pleasant Hill Library is that he is so invested in it. It is the library he grew up with and the library he is responsible for transforming so that it meets the needs of his community. Patrick’s favorite thing about the Pleasant Hill Library? ”The surprises. Every day I am startled to learn something new, or witness some magical moment: a toddler singing at storytime, or the selfless acts of strangers, or a dancing Lego robot made on a Saturday afternoon,” he said. We all need to invest in our library, too, to make it truly our own.
I asked him about his wish list for the new Pleasant Hill Library. He said:
My number one is to see that everyone else’s top three come true first. I want more than anything to help build a place that perfectly reflects the aspirations and imaginations of those who love it. That place will be endlessly more interesting and engaging than something I could dream up on my own. Number two is coziness: such a simple thing, but it’s fragile when trying to make someplace new. I don’t want to lose the comfortable, welcoming character of the Pleasant Hill Library that makes families feel like it belongs to them. Number three is flexibility. We do things now at Pleasant Hill that the architects never conceived of in 1961. Library lovers in 2061 will be learning in ways that we can’t predict now. I want a new library to be changeable so that the spaces can grow with us.
I love the idea of architectural and programmatic plasticity. I love the idea that I can have a say in how a new library space will meet my needs and my son’s needs. And of course I love the idea that my son will one day rock a new Pleasant Hill Library, and not just at storytime.
Originally published: November 1, 2015