The Plain Library

About two months ago, my son and I were wrapping up some errands when we happened to pass the Walnut Creek Library. Its sudden appearance in my periphery surprised me and I blurted out, “Oh! There’s the Walnut Creek Library.” My son piped up from the back seat, “Can we go to the Walnut Creek Library?” “Sure!” I replied and set about circling the block. I parked in the small street-level lot, fed the meter (!), and we walked toward the entrance. I was struck first by the size of the building, and then by its ambiance. It felt both commercial and academic. And I admit, I felt diminutive compared to it, and I was shrinking with each step.

We wandered around the first floor until we found the children’s section. I tried to take in as much as possible about the space while still trying to keep an eye on C, who managed to lose us both as he wove in and out of nooks and around the stacks. I caught a glimpse of the wide-open storytime area set against a wall of windows and dotted with fun and colorful cushions and benches. My son and I squeezed ourselves between the picture book stacks and attempted to browse and read books off the shelf like we do at our library. This proved to be too much of a challenge for us (apparently we need an abundance of space to browse books). He quickly picked out two books and we went to the self-checkout station right outside the children’s area.

“Journey of a Bottle” (photo by Utilizer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia) Commons

As he checked out his books, I looked to my left and saw the giant “Hand of Peace” sculpture outside. I pointed it out; C was unimpressed. I decided we needed to go upstairs to get a better view. More exploring! That got his attention. As we dashed up the stairs, we were dazzled by the “Journey of a Bottle” installation overhead. But once on the second floor, quietly crowded with patrons reading and working, I didn’t feel comfortable letting my son wander around, even though we both wanted to see the space. So I tried to herd him back to the stairs. And then he discovered what impressed him the most about the Walnut Creek Library: the elevator. Of course. He wanted to ride it down and take the stairs back up ad infinitum and while I am willing to indulge him at Gap, I would only indulge him once here. On our second ride down the elevator, it was clear to me that we had overstayed our welcome. I found myself sweating as I worked to suppress his energy–to quiet and slow him down–so as not to disrupt anything or anyone. This fancy library required our most refined behavior. I implored him to put on some listening ears and cooperate. He refused. Our visit ended with me pulling a crying, protesting toddler out the door. We got back to the car just as our meter was expiring.

Since that visit, my son calls the Pleasant Hill Library “the plain library”. “Mama,” he inquires, “can we go to the plain library?” The library where I can let you wander around because it is so easy to track you when you are beyond arm’s length? The library that always seems to be full of movement and opportunities for exploration? Yes, my son, we can absolutely go to the plain library.

Pleasant Hill Library
The Pleasant Hill Library, AKA The Plain Library

There’s a difference, though, between a plain library and a run-down one. Most of the patrons of the Pleasant Hill Library would agree that our library is in a sad state of disrepair. Thankfully the parking lot got a recent facelift (it really was the Wild West out there), but so many years of deferred maintenance make it both structurally and cost prohibitive to fix the current space. Pleasant Hill needs a new library.

Pleasant Hill Mayor Sue Noack stopped by the library on Saturday May 7 to talk about the city’s plan to help the new library become a reality. Mayor Noack approaches the building of a new library from a unique perspective as a Library Task Force member, as Mayor, and as a former banker. She currently serves on the Task Force’s Funding Subcommittee, which, according to the city’s website, is “looking at various options to fund the construction of a new facility as well as exploring grant and other funding opportunities for feasibility studies, equipment and programs”.

Mayor Noack first gave us an overview of the vision for a new library to serve the 1600 patrons that visit the library daily (the highest number in Contra Costa County). She used adjectives like “modern”, “well-lit”, “open”, and “flexible”. The new library, she said, would most likely be a comparable 25,000 square-foot single-story structure. It would have 21st century technology, meeting rooms, study and program spaces with expanded children and family spaces (in fact, in the preliminary floor plan, the children’s area and adult collection get the most square footage). Flexibility for the new library is key, and when asked, Mayor Noack said this could be achieved by installing moving walls, using furniture as room dividers, designing different roof lines, and eliminating fixed features. The architect hired for such a job, Mayor Noack assured us, would be a specialist in building libraries to address such nuances as sound barriers.

Mayor Noack then gave us a look at the city’s financial condition and how a new library–along with other priorities like street repair, bike paths, and storm drains–fit into the city’s long-term financial plan. The bottom line estimate: the price tag for a new library may run into the millions and the facility could take another three to five years to realize.

That’s one pricey plain library. But we want our library to be its best, to serve us best. Can we really put a pricetag on accessibility and connectivity?

Mayor Noack told us that an independent survey conducted by Godbe Research found that 71% of Pleasant Hill citizens place a new library in the top five current community needs. That 71% also support a .05-cent sales tax increase, which would bring Pleasant Hill sales tax in line with neighboring cities’ nine percent. The advantage a tax increase has over, say, a bond measure, Mayor Noack explained: it doesn’t place “undue burden” on the citizens of Pleasant Hill because it reflects library usage. Anyone who shops in Pleasant Hill would be helping build a library used by patrons from all over the county.

Tax Tokens (photo by $1LENCE D00600D at English Wikipedia [GFDL  or CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

The next steps include getting the sales tax increase on the ballot, identifying a site, and fundraising for initial plans and renderings. Mayor Noack told us there is currently a lot of discussion with the county and the Pleasant Hill Recreation and Parks District to identify a site. Once a site is agreed upon, the project should gain momentum.

A few weeks before the Mayor’s talk, the Atlantic published an article, titled “Fewer Americans Are Visiting Local Libraries–And Technology Isn’t To Blame”, which discussed the latest Pew Research findings on library usage and the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ most recent survey of our nation’s libraries.

The take-home according to the article’s author, Robinson Meyer:

There’s empirical evidence that usage tracks investment. If libraries receive more public funds, more people use them. And if governments invest less in its libraries (as they have since 2009), fewer people visit. … The correlation between investment and use makes sense. If libraries have more funds, they can have more staff, more classes, more copies of the latest bestseller, and—maybe most importantly—longer hours.

As Meyer put it: “if the public wants to … make the local library more useful, it should do one thing that evidence supports: Fund it better.”

It makes sense, then, that Walnut Creek’s library (one of two) is both beautiful and busy. And the same can be said for libraries like the Lafayette Library and the Danville Library. One attendee at the Mayor’s presentation asked, “Why not the Danville Library for Pleasant Hill?” Mayor Noack explained that communities build libraries scalable with their populations. The leaders of the city and the members of the Library Task Force are carefully considering what our community can afford and what the community wants; maybe that’s a plain library, maybe it’s an opulent one.  

The Lafayette Library and Learning Center (photo from Architect Magazine)

After Mayor Noack’s presentation, a new Pleasant Hill Library Friend introduced herself to me. As we talked, I told her my son’s new name for the Pleasant Hill Library. She asked me if I had visited the Lafayette Library. I told I had not. She said she took one step inside and wanted to make it her office (she is a consultant) because it is so beautiful (and, I’m willing to bet, busy), but she said she feels obligated to spend her days working from our home library–the plain, run-down one with the leaking roof and 1950s acoustics. I found myself trying to make a case for the Pleasant Hill Library in its current state. I couldn’t come up with much about the facility itself other than its endearing provincialism. “They finally repainted the parking lot,” I offered.

What I love most about the Pleasant Hill Library are its services, programs, and amazing staff; and the fact that my son and I feel comfortable and welcomed each time we walk through the door. I am confident that we will feel the same once our plain library sheds its well-worn 57-year-old skin.

As I read through the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ survey referenced in the Atlantic article, I kept coming back to one thing–its definition of a library:

Developed by the Federal State Cooperative System (FSCS), … a public library meets, at a minimum, the following criteria:

  • An organized collection of printed or other library materials, or a combination thereof;
  • Paid staff;
  • An established schedule in which services of the staff are available to the public;
  • Facilities necessary to support such a collection, staff, and schedule; and
  • Supported in whole or in part with public funds.

It’s not a complicated entity, just a few simple ingredients, and yet its value to a community is immeasurable.

Photo by Cgs [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A public library is by definition a public effort. And that public effort in the 21st century is a collective collaboration, not just with Pleasant Hill leaders, but with our entire community. If the library is to serve us best, plain or otherwise, we have to make our needs–from all corners of Pleasant Hill–known. The city recently released a survey asking its citizens to do just that. The survey is just one outlet for our voices. Supporting a ballot measure to increase our sales tax to fund the building of a new library is another. Joining and supporting the Friends of the Pleasant Hill Library is one more. And perhaps the most important way to join our collaborative: by using our library. Physically or virtually. Get to know it intimately so that when it comes time to build a facility that truly reflects our community, you will see yourself in it.  



Originally published: June 1, 2016

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