By LINDSAY MYERS — When I was a child, the library in my hometown was in a tiny, rectangular storefront about the size of the Hyattsville post office. There were no group study rooms, no reading nooks, no toddler-sized tables covered in puzzles. Mostly, there were books. And I spent hours there — cross legged on the floor, elbow on knee, chin in hand, reading. As the new Hyattsville library finally breaks ground on Nov. 19, I’ve been reflecting on my experience of libraries and the ways in which they are reinventing themselves in the 21st century.
Libraries, as many have acknowledged, have had to evolve since the explosion of digital technology. Now marketed more like community centers, modern libraries are places where patrons can meet friends or business partners over a cup of coffee and take classes on topics as varied as 3D printing and resume building. They are also places where low-income residents can connect to vital social services; some libraries, in fact, employ a full-time social worker just for this purpose. In 2017, the Brookings Institute identified modern libraries as one of those storied “third places” — somewhere outside of home and work where people can foster in-person relationships with one another. And you don’t have to whisper while you do it. When asked whether librarians still insist on quiet, Heidi Daniels, president and CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore said, “I would say we’re a little less on the shush side and more on the ‘come on in’ side.”
I’m not opposed to this transition. Though I feel nostalgic for the quiet, no-frills library of my own childhood, I also see the real benefit of positioning the library as the nucleus of a community, a centralized access point to everything else. Hyattsville’s current library, even in its temporary, smaller location, is just such a place. It hosts regular meetups for teens and job seekers, English conversation hours, book clubs, and story hours for little ones. And the rendering of the new building is dazzling. It has huge glass windows, tons of group work space, a cafe, rows of computers and a children’s area complete with a castle and drawbridge. As the mother of a toddler and an almost-walking 10-month-old, I can imagine the rainy days we’ll spend there, grateful for a place to go that doesn’t cost any money and that everyone in the family will enjoy.
Yet, these new libraries worry me a little, too. I worry that amidst all the dazzle and activity, the books may be metaphorically, perhaps even literally, pushed aside. We ought not forget that even if the library does not have a cafe, climbable castle, or class on coding, it still contains thousands and thousands of access points on its shelves. Books — and the very real way they change people’s lives — ought to remain at the heart of the library.
Here is my request of the new Hyattsville library: Teach me something about those books.
I don’t mean that I want to join a book club, I mean that I want to go to the library to learn about the history of books, the history of ideas in those books. In addition to offering classes on Google Drive and American Sign Language, hold a class on famous American children’s literature authors — Wilder, White, Keats, Cleary — help me understand what makes them great. Host a “Banned Books Night.” Tell me the story of these books’ infamy. Since the library is a community gathering space, why not involve the community? Invite a high school teacher or local professor to give a lecture on important novels by immigrants, or the civil rights novels that changed the world. Invite a local poet to run a workshop called, “How to Read a Sonnet.” At the end of the evening, show me where I can go in the library to learn more.
As a chest of cultural treasures, the library ought to celebrate its bounty. It ought to fashion itself as a museum of living history — a place where the story of humanity is told and retold through the clamor of a thousand voices. Librarians are uniquely trained to preserve and protect these voices, to help us understand how, why and when they mattered most. Let us take advantage of our librarians and use the library as a place to grow in wisdom, not just knowledge. Perhaps in time, we, too, will be ready to add our voices to the clamor.