The New Library: What We Gain and Lose

On a Saturday in late February, mounds of dirty snow clutter the curbs, but the sky overhead is wind-swept blue. My son and I cross the park to the Cambridge Public Library Main Branch, a glittering temple of glass.

The boy is doing zigzags; at nine years old, it’s impossible for him to walk in a straight line. I hoist the bag of books we’re returning, as we shoulder our way through the big glass doors, ducking around a steady stream of other patrons.

The ground floor of Cambridge Main is humming. It’s like a fancy hotel lobby or an airport—something I thought I’d never say about a library. But on this winter weekend, the library feels like a busy destination.

You could say I’m here to eat my words. A year ago, I wrote a piece called “What Are Libraries For?” (later retitled “The Death of the Library Book” on Salon) in which I took the Cambridge Public Library to task for its renovation of the Main Branch.

The new “Glass” box, which is attached to the far smaller old “Stone” building, opened its doors in the fall of 2009. When I visited in March 2010, I didn’t like all the unused space in Glass. I wondered about the “café” on the main floor, with its round tables and vending machines and an ambiance designed to evoke Starbucks. I still don’t like the pink walls.

"Pink Stairs at Cambridge Main" © Fran Cronin 2011

Yet a year later, it’s clear that many Cambridge residents love the new building. According to the CPL’s most recent annual report, in FY 2010, Cambridge libraries registered 10,462 new cardholders—almost a 60 percent increase from the previous year. In the report, Director Susan Flannery writes of the new Main Branch’s opening weekend:

Comments in our guest books range from ‘fabulous’ to ‘awesome’ to ‘wonderful.’ One customer said, ‘I feel like a baby in a candy shop with a golden Visa card.’ Another said the beauty of the building brought her ‘to tears.’”

This Saturday, there’s not one open table in the café. Everybody could be sitting at an outdoor plaza, basking in the sunlight through the glass, checking their phones. The computer stations and the tables near the shelves for new books are also packed.

But despite its success as a new community space, I still have mixed feelings about the Main Branch’s design. Even my son is on the fence about whether he likes this glass temple better than the little branch library near our house.

His favorite thing about Cambridge Main is that he gets to use a scanner and check out books himself. Give a boy some buttons to push and a screen, and he’s happy. But he often seems daunted by the huge Children’s Room on the top floor. The entire children’s book collection is now housed here, but the ranks of shelves don’t feel kid friendly.

Instead, my son will ask the librarian for help when he’s looking for a particular kind of book. He’s been trained to do that from age two, and the wonderful librarians always have good ideas. They often find books on the shelves for him. Yet they aren’t necessarily the books he wants. And I question how a new library like this encourages wandering among the shelves or online.

For kids, I think the wandering needs boundaries; that’s part of what makes it feel safe. There’s one set of shelves that includes Calvin and Hobbes, Tintin, and pop-up books, and here my son will grab whatever titles he wants. From my perch in a nearby window seat, I see other kids fall on books in this area like hungry puppies on chow.

It’s a comfy nook between the shelves that includes armchairs. The Children’s Room contains other such nooks where kids, parents, and nannies gather. But then there are the rest of the shelves and very few small bodies hurtling down the aisles or exploring books. I often see more kids sitting crosslegged on carpets with open books—in a far smaller space—at the local Barnes & Noble.

That’s my problem with the vision of libraries embodied by Cambridge Main: Beautiful as it is, everything feels too orderly. You can access the computer to search for specific titles, either on the library’s computers or at home. Librarians are now “information navigators,” helping you to ford the endless currents of words.

But what about perusing shelves on your own, coming across a hidden treasure? What if you want to get lost among the books, zigzagging like a nine-year-old?

If I know what I want, I can—and do—order it through the library’s computer system. Copies will appear within days for pickup at the branch of my choice. But this isn’t like getting lost in physical library stacks.

When I see an array of books, I get a tangible sense of plenty that I don’t have when faced with the library search screen. And what I’m really missing here is the feeling that other human beings are making decisions about what belongs on those shelves.

"More Pink at Cambridge Main" © Fran Cronin 2011

These days, I have access to vast periodical archives and databases through Harvard, let alone the Cambridge Public Library. It’s a researcher’s dream, but it’s daunting for a wanderer. The Web encourages an almost ADHD level of wandering, but users—especially young users—are at the mercy of all sorts of unvetted, commercial, factually dubious, and downright nasty sites that have nothing to with the public interest.

Providing access to information is not the same as building a coherent public collection, and the loss is evident as library acquisitions budgets plummet around the country. That’s true for e-books as well as print books.

According to “E-Books Are a Hot Story at Libraries” in USA Today, Minneapolis’s Hennepin County Library plans to spend a whopping $350,000 on e-books this year. But most library systems don’t have the resources of Hennepin County or the Cambridge Public Library, which is located in one of the most book-happy, branch-secure, and fiscally sound of small cities.

Other public libraries from Boston to Pittsburgh to Charlotte, North Carolina, have been shutting branches and laying off librarians at a rapid clip. In February, the Camden Free Public Library in New Jersey closed its downtown main branch. According to the AP-based “Camden Loses Its Soul for Good—Closes Main Library,” librarians there said they hadn’t bought a single new book in over a year.

So if you spin out the Public Library of the Future to at least one logical extreme, what do you get? A few print books in museum cases. There’s no need for shelves or big new buildings. Most patrons will hunch over computers or the equivalent of Kindles and iPads.

That’s not so bad—really—assuming all those who can’t afford Kindles and iPads and computers get access to them through the Public Library of the Future. (The USA Today article notes that the Sacramento Public Library in California plans to test out a hundred Barnes & Noble Nooks as free e-reader loaners this spring.)

Instead of one mega-library designed by famous architects, then, cities could open cozy branches on every corner, keeping the idea of the neighborhood branch library alive. The thing is, librarians will need to staff those branches. It’s partly a matter of money, but it’s also a matter of vision: One high-tech centralized physical location versus many small sites run by many quirky human beings.

I vote for human beings. I don’t want more and better virtual catalogs, such as the kind offered by Google’s Library Project. I want more librarians.

A case in point: On that same Saturday in February, I visit the fiction stacks on the Main Branch’s basement level, testing my belief that nobody ever goes down there. Sure enough, while just one floor above the lobby thrums like a shopping mall, I find not one other person in the small, windowless space now devoted to fiction.

By my count, there are seven stand-alone shelves, three smaller shelves on the walls, and a rather sad display rack including fiction reference guides to help you find what you want. A larger adjoining room contains graphic novels, mysteries, and science fiction. That Saturday, no one is in there, either. No librarians are staffing it. Even if I’d been tempted to work down there, the place feels like a basement, lonely and a little creepy.

Sticking the fiction below ground wasn’t the original plan, according to Director Flannery. When the construction budget for the Main Branch renovation was cut by $16 million, library administrators decided to locate the popular fiction stacks in a less than optimum place. They thought it would draw traffic downstairs.

Now use of the space varies from six or seven people at a time to nobody, Flannery writes in a recent email. She tries to walk through on a regular basis, checking to make sure other staffers are down there shelving when scheduled. While fixing the fiction problem is an issue, she notes, it’s not the biggest one at the CPL.

I like her honesty about this. Libraries are public spaces that serve many competing interests, and at Cambridge Main you can see library administrators and designers admirably planning for the future while nodding to the past. Yet it’s also clear that library planners have a lot to say about where the traffic in a new building goes. The design can’t just be based on what the “customer” wants.

The purpose of the Public Library of the Future is still evolving, but I’ll go out on a virtual limb here and say that the public needs more than free Wi-Fi and a pleasant place to sit. They need public leaders who are staunch supporters of education for all in every part of town, of lifelong learning, of literary culture—of all that books represent.


Fran Cronin and Wendy Glaas helped with the research for this piece. It was originally published in Talking Writing in a slightly different form (“What Are Libraries For? The Sequel”).

Fran Cronin’s photographs are used with her permission.


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