Monday, October 22, 2018

Is the public library obsolete?
A lot of powerful forces in society seem to think so. In recent years, declines in the circulation of bound books in some parts of the country have led prominent critics to argue that libraries are no longer serving their historical function. Countless elected officials insist that in the 21st century — when so many books are digitized, so much public culture exists online and so often people interact virtually — libraries no longer need the support they once commanded.
Libraries are already starved for resources. In some cities, even affluent ones like Atlanta, entire branches are being shut down. In San Jose, Calif., just down the road from Facebook, Google and Apple, the public library budget is so tight that users with overdue fees above $20 aren’t allowed to borrow books or use computers.
But the problem that libraries face today isn’t irrelevance. Indeed, in New York and many other cities, library circulation, program attendance and average hours spent visiting are up. The real problem that libraries face is that so many people are using them, and for such a wide variety of purposes, that library systems and their employees are overwhelmed. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, about half of all Americans ages 16 and over used a public library in the past year, and two-thirds say that closing their local branch would have a “major impact on their community.”
Libraries are being disparaged and neglected at precisely the moment when they are most valued and necessary. Why the disconnect? In part it’s because the founding principle of the public library — that all people deserve free, open access to our shared culture and heritage — is out of sync with the market logic that dominates our world. But it’s also because so few influential people understand the expansive role that libraries play in modern communities.
Libraries are an example of what I call “social infrastructure”: the physical spaces and organizations that shape the way people interact. Libraries don’t just provide free access to books and other cultural materials, they also offer things like companionship for older adults, de facto child care for busy parents, language instruction for immigrants and welcoming public spaces for the poor, the homeless and young people.
I recently spent a year doing ethnographic research in libraries in New York City. Again and again, I was reminded how essential libraries are, not only for a neighborhood’s vitality but also for helping to address all manner of personal problems.
For older people, especially widows, widowers and those who live alone, libraries are places for culture and company, through book clubs, movie nights, sewing circles and classes in art, current events and computing. For many, the library is the main place they interact with people from other generations.
For children and teenagers, libraries help instill an ethic of responsibility, to themselves and to their neighbors, by teaching them what it means to borrow and take care of something public, and to return it so others can have it too. For new parents, grandparents and caretakers who feel overwhelmed when watching an infant or a toddler by themselves, libraries are a godsend.
In many neighborhoods, particularly those where young people aren’t hyper-scheduled in formal after-school programs, libraries are highly popular among adolescents and teenagers who want to spend time with other people their age. One reason is that they’re open, accessible and free. Another is that the library staff members welcome them; in many branches, they even assign areas for teenagers to be with one another.
To appreciate why this matters, compare the social space of the library with the social space of commercial establishments like Starbucks or McDonald’s. These are valuable parts of the social infrastructure, but not everyone can afford to frequent them, and not all paying customers are welcome to stay for long.
Older and poor people will often avoid Starbucks altogether, because the fare is too expensive and they feel that they don’t belong. The elderly library patrons I got to know in New York told me that they feel even less welcome in the trendy new coffee shops, bars and restaurants that are so common in the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods. Poor and homeless library patrons don’t even consider entering these places. They know from experience that simply standing outside a high-end eatery can prompt managers to call the police. But you rarely see a police officer in a library.
This is not to say that libraries are always peaceful and serene. During the time I spent doing research, I witnessed a handful of heated disputes, physical altercations and other uncomfortable situations, sometimes involving people who appeared to be mentally ill or under the influence of drugs. But such problems are inevitable in a public institution that’s dedicated to open access, especially when drug clinics, homeless shelters and food banks routinely turn away — and often refer to the library! — those who most need help. What’s remarkable is how rarely these disruptions happen, how civilly they are managed and how quickly a library regains its rhythm afterward.
The openness and diversity that flourish in neighborhood libraries were once a hallmark of urban culture. But that has changed. Though American cities are growing more ethnically, racially and culturally diverse, they too often remain divided and unequal, with some neighborhoods cutting themselves off from difference — sometimes intentionally, sometimes just by dint of rising costs — particularly when it comes to race and social class.
Libraries are the kinds of places where people with different backgrounds, passions and interests can take part in a living democratic culture. They are the kinds of places where the public, private and philanthropic sectors can work together to reach for something higher than the bottom line.
This summer, Forbes magazine published an article arguing that libraries no longer served a purpose and did not deserve public support. The author, an economist, suggested that Amazon replace libraries with its own retail outlets, and claimed that most Americans would prefer a free-market option. The public response — from librarians especially, but also public officials and ordinary citizens — was so overwhelmingly negative that Forbes deleted the article from its website.
We should take heed. Today, as cities and suburbs continue to reinvent themselves, and as cynics claim that government has nothing good to contribute to that process, it’s important that institutions like libraries get the recognition they deserve. It’s worth noting that “liber,” the Latin root of the word “library,” means both “book” and “free.” Libraries stand for and exemplify something that needs defending: the public institutions that — even in an age of atomization, polarization and inequality — serve as the bedrock of civil society.
If we have any chance of rebuilding a better society, social infrastructure like the library is precisely what we need.

Eric Klinenberg (@EricKlinenberg), a professor of sociology and the director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, is the author of the forthcoming book “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life,” from which this essay is adapted.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Prepping for January Book Sale.

You can now buy used books at the library. The prices are the same low prices as at the big sale and the shelves are marked as well. The bookshelf is located to the right of the circulation desk.
The Annual Book sale will be held at the Washington Civic Center again in 2019. The dates are Jan. 25-27 for the public. The hours for Friday and Saturday are 9 to 5, and Sunday Noon to 3. Sunday is $5 a bag day. Fill our bag for $5. Friends members night is Thursday Jan. 24, 2019 from 5:30 pm to 8:00 pm. You can pay your dues at the door Thursday night for entry.
For all our faithful volunteers, set-up day is Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019 at 9:00 am, with fine tuning on Wednesday. Stop in for an hour or two, or stay all day. We appreciate your help.

Need something to hold all those treasures?  Back by popular demand are our Bag It at Brown Bags!  You can bet your blogger will be in line to buy one more. For $20 you can have a bag to use for shopping, bringing books and films to and from the library, carrying a days' worth of errand necessities, or packed in your suitcase for travel.  They make welcome gifts, too. Made of sturdy canvas, they're nicely embroidered and have two pockets, one inside and one out.

Friends Membership renewal letters will be mailed soon. If you didn't receive yours stop by the library to pick up a card at the front desk. The dues year is the calendar year. Only $15 per family (we accept generous donations of more, of course!). We're counting on you!_______________________________

Friday, October 25, 2013

Thanks for all the goodies!

Book donations...The other day, I walked into the book shed where we sort and pack books, DVD/CDs, tapes and records for the January and In Library Book Sales, thinking I had a few spare minutes to help out.  I did a double-take:  plastic bins, cardboard boxes, and paper bags were piled high, and three hours later, just as I was down to the last book, in came yet another bag full!
Our Brown Library Friends certainly know how to answer a call!  Last month we mentioned here and in our newsletter that we needed more book donations to make our biggest fundraiser of the year the great success it always has been, and since then, you've responded generously.  Keep them coming!  As much work as it means for Sharon Johnston, Susan Schwing, Teresa Crozier and the other volunteer sorters and packers, we heartily thank you

Volunteering...If you'd like to volunteer to help with the January sale, be sure to find Katie Lake, between now and early January.  She will be glad to add your name to the long list of old- and new-timers who have come out to make the Washington Civic Center a veritable book treasure hunt.  All you have to know is the alphabet!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

October Leaves

Your Library Friend is blogging from the techy Bay Area in California this month, visiting family and enjoying perfect fall days, not unlike one of Eastern Carolina's autumn pleasures.  Walking is the preferred mode of transportation hereabouts, and also includes a trip to the small neighborhood library, a pretty Spanish-style building only a few blocks away.  As in every season here, even fall, the streets and gardens are alive with exotic flowers of brilliant shades, herbs blossoming, succulents sending out new shoots from beneath the old ones.  Down from the trees, the leaves fall over the roofs and steps, and small children arrive for story hour, while older ones from the school across the street check out homework resources. 
It reminds me of being finally old enough to make my own trips to the library six or seven blocks from where I grew up.  I read everything I could get my hands on, sometimes stopping on the way home to begin a chapter or two.
It wasn't long, however, before the librarian (who in those days kept a close eye on who read what...) was looking askance at some of my choices.  "You're not old enough for the Adult Fiction shelves," she would admonish me.  When I protested that I'd read all the others in the children's section, she offered a solution.  "All right, then.  I'll let you choose from the Non-fiction section."
I didn't actually know what Non-fiction was, but it meant I could finally read new books, I'd try it.  Turns out it opened me up to all kinds of new worlds--biography, history, geography (still one of my favorites), and science (at least the ones that weren't locked away for fear of small eyes discovering the very adult mysteries of biology). I'd come back every few days for a new adventure.  Sixty years later, I'm still at the library looking for new worlds, these days found in film as well as on paper.
And that brings me to the new world I found at the library here on Santa Clara street:  Adult Reading Hour! 
How long has it been since you have had the pleasure of listening to a book being read to you?  Believe me, it's quite a treat.  Joining the group are people, as you might expect, whose eyes are beyond words in print but still appreciate a good read, and also those who simply love the sound of a story from a good storytelling voice.  The talented volunteer reader chooses short stories of all kinds (and takes suggestions from the audience, too), leaving time afterwards to welcome reactions and responses from her listeners.
Would you be interested in a Reader's Group at Brown Library, too?  If so, just answer this post, and yours truly will get the message.  Maybe with the help of some volunteers in Washington, we can get one started. 
California doesn't have to have all the fun.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What's a library for?

My brother, visiting me from New Hampshire last year, was surprised to see all the cars in the Brown Library parking lot as we drove in.  "I would think most people didn't need to use a library much any more," he commented. "We all have computers at home and ipads and smart phones in our pockets.  We can look up anything we want from there."
"Come on in," I told him.  "I'll give you a tour.  You'll really be surprised, then."
There are a lot of people who think the way Tom does.  They forget that the role of a library isn't only books.  A town library is a center for a whole community, making sure it has the resources each of its citizens needs to live, work, and learn.  Those needs are as many and varied as the people who make up a community.  But really, they can be boiled down to one:  the need to know.
A town is only as in-the-know as its people are.  All its people:  rich or poor, higher or basically educated; whatever their family, culture and background, its citizens make a town progressive.  Neighborhoods grow, jobs appear, good schools are built, the arts and recreation flourish, the job applicant pool becomes smarter--all of us become smarter and healthier at living.
I have a favorite saying, attributed to one of our smarter statesmen:  If you think keeping libraries is expensive, try the cost of living in an ignorant country.
But that's just words.  My brother is a businessman. Business for him is seven days a week for long hours.  He feeds people breakfast and lunch--good food, good customers, good service in an easy, friendly atmosphere.  In his world, all that is connected by a single keystroke:  the energy of himself and his family who works equally hard with him.  But the needs of his customers aren't all the same--some arrive at the door at 6 am for a few cups of coffee and a roll before work.  A little later, their friends walk in to make contact and order their first meal of the day--it's a local morning ritual--choosing from a menu of fifteen or twenty items from oatmeal to eggs to pancakes.  Later on, some travelers will roll in from off the road on their way to hike or ski.  They want fancier stuff; they're on vacation, after all.  It isn't long to lunch, either, and that's a whole new crowd with different appetites.  After nearly thirty years, his restaurant has learned how to serve them all, keeping the tried-and-true, local comfort foods, but also adding new fare, healthier or trendier. 
So as we walked into the library, I began to point out to him what people were actually doing there, corner to corner.  The children's section to the right had a story hour going on for preschoolers whose parents brought them in to listen to Terry animate with puppets an adventurous tale.  Sure, their parents could read to them at home, but there was more fun doing it among friends. And they could take new books home.  A few children were working on the special children's computers, learning letters and numbers, making play of reading and researching. In front of us at the circulation desk were a line of people bringing back books and CDs or DVDs, and checking out new ones--edging in were two or three choosing from the new-book shelf.  Yes, they still read books with covers and pages; they can choose books that are favorites, books with large print, books on tape or CD, old books with beautiful illustrations.  They might own an e-reader or they might not--the library does e-books, too, free. (Did you know you could take classes in how to use an e-reader here, too?)
The fact that every carrel of computers were in use was another clue--this was where people came to check mail, apply for jobs, go to online classes, learn a language, look up what they need to know to fix plumbing or build a table or knit a sweater or grow a garden, use a digital camera, catch up with people far and near.  Home wasn't where they were hooked up; perhaps they couldn't afford it, perhaps they just needed help connecting, perhaps they were visiting from elsewhere and needed the wireless.  For so many of us, the library is the place to go to know and to keep up with the world wherever we are.
Beyond them were people reading the newspapers and magazines, researching genealogy in the History Room, choosing films and music to borrow, nesting in the young-adult section, and around the corner, looking for mysteries and fiction.  Someone in the tutoring room was tutoring a student.  Upstairs in the community room, some group was meeting.
And down in the offices, the library director and her staff were keeping it all happening, the same way my brother does in his kitchen.  It's not a large staff, but they work hard and manage to keep everyone in the community, whatever their resources, income, or connectedness, equally able to access the table and the necessary nourishment of the mind.
"Wow," my brother said. Yes, indeed. 
In case you, too, are forgetting about the real value of a library, take your own tour of Brown Library any day of the week and catch up on the learning and information center of Washington and Beaufort County.
Then become a Friend of the Brown Library--it costs very little for each of us, but it means an enormous amount to everyone we live among.  Being a Friend is a very community thing to do.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Favorite Reads

Read anything good lately?   One of my favorites from this summer's stock was Nicole Mones' The Last Chinese Chef, found on the New Books shelf.  A San Francisco food critic, still mourning for her husband and finding herself even more unsettled by a letter from China which implicates him in a strange lawsuit, and an American chef, going back to his roots in China to open a new restaurant against all sorts of political and social obstructions, become entangled in the intrigue of the suit and in each other's losses and aspirations.  It's a small book, but so charming and so patient with its characters' growths. The Chinese cuisine in its historical perspective gave the whole book an ingenious (and appetizing) framework.  How about you?  We'd like to hear about the pages you're turning, too.

Fall Means More Books for the Friends!

Mark your calendars! 
January 23-26, 2014
It's not only school children going back to the books.  Fall sets the Friends to browsing and reading, and also collecting books, CDs and DVDs, donating them for our January Book Sale.  We ought to call it the Friends January Extravaganza, for as one avid reader told us at our book tables at the Saturday Market, "I wait all year for your January weekend of books!  I'm there every single day to cart away bags full of my favorite authors!" 
Donating Books:  We're always glad to hear from our fans, and even  happier to have an opportunity to remind everyone that this is a good time of year to donate their old books, too.
Ginny Warren, Bettyanne Dicken and other volunteers have been working all year sorting and boxing what's already come in, but we can always use more.  As our friend at the Market said the other day, "The more the better to choose treasures from!"
To Donate Books, simply bring them to Brown Library and put them in the basket just inside the front doors before the Circulation Desk.  If you have boxes of them and need assistance, ask for Perry, who helps us manage the donated books and is usually available in the mornings.
Each book we sell, summer or winter, gets translated into new and better materials, equipment, furnishings--and yes, books!--for Brown.

Thanks!  Summer's fading, but not before we thank all our patrons for the 2013 Summer Book Sale at Saturday Market on the waterfront in downtown Washington.  We have a few Saturdays more to offer our great book bargains, so come down and take your pick until early October.
Let's also take this time to give great thanks to Diane Giffin, who coordinates the sale and gathers the many generous volunteers who come out to attend our tables each week from April through October, quite an organizational feat.  We wouldn't want this to get around too much, but, actually, volunteering at the Summer Sales is fun!  Readers line up to see our selections and chat about what they've read; sipping cold coffee, we wave to marketing friends and catch up on neighborhood gossip.  (Oh, and we sell lots of books, too...)  What could be a better way to spend a few hours on a Saturday morning in summer?  If you'd like to volunteer for next year's Summer Sale, just send Diane a note at No experience necessary--we'll train you on the spot.

We Never Take Reading for Granted  Pairing up with the Literacy Volunteers of Beaufort County, the Friends are co-sponsoring Craven County native EARL MILLS, who will read from his book of poetry, From Illiterate to Poet.  Join us on Sunday October 6, 2013, 2-4 pm at Wesley Hall in the First United Methodist Church, West Second Street in Washington. 
Mills' story is one we all need to listen to, especially those of us who take reading and education for granted.  Mills graduated from high school in 1971, but he couldn't read beyond a second grade level, something only his wife of 39 years knew.  One night he was called on to read at his church.  His heart sank.  He tried to think of some excuse:  "I couldn't find my glasses.  I stumbled through every word."
Then he discovered the Craven County Literacy Volunteers, and at 48, he read his first book.  A whole world opened to him, and since then he has read more than 70 books and novels, and written over 40 poems.  Like many people the Literacy Volunteers (pictured below) help, he found the gift of reading in himself. 

Our fall program is free and open to the public.