What happened to the books?

An argument for keeping the next library bibliocentric.

Sometime in the 1970s, librarians decided they no longer worked in libraries. I recall it happening during summer vacation, as if the nation’s school librarians gathered wherever librarians gather on the ides of July and conspired to toss out the old name and all its vestiges of shushing fuddy-duddyness. Beginning the next fall, all requests for books were referred to “the IMC”—the Instructional Media Center. The new word sent a clear message to the kids: The librarians were ashamed of their books. The IMC is much more than “just” a library, they insisted. Look at our new microfiche machine! Consider your options in filmstrip and flashcard! Meanwhile the kids ignored the equipment and sprawled on the floor reading The Borrowers Aloft and Kon-Tiki.

I’ve been thinking about the IMC lately because I get the same feeling from the campaign for the Seattle Public Library bond issue, which is up for vote next Tuesday. Everywhere in the campaign literature, in newspaper articles, in stump speeches, we’re reminded that libraries aren’t just about books! They’re “multi-use centers,” discussion facilities, video storehouses, public Internet access sites, sponsors of socially and culturally uplifting programs. The message that comes across is that library boosters secretly believe (or fear) that voters won’t fund an institution devoted to the private, solitary act of reading a book.

I want to speak for the idea of a library as a place for books, and for books as a social and cultural good that requires no apology. Books are the heart and soul of a library. Everything else—the literacy programs, book groups, lecturing writers, storytellers, art exhibits, homework tutors—is an afterthought. Good and worthwhile, yes, but an afterthought. I’m afraid if we lose sight of this concept we’ll end up with a city full of IMCs and no real libraries.

It’s happened elsewhere. In 1996 San Francisco opened, to tremendous fanfare, a new multimillion-dollar downtown library without any books. Well, not without some books, of course, but take a stroll through the building next time you’re down in the land of the Golden Gate. Nicholson Baker famously exposed the book purge the SF library executed before moving into the grand new space, and I swear you can feel their absence. The surviving volumes are hidden from view so as, one assumes, not to clutter up the building’s impressive architectural lines. The periodicals lounge feels as if the magazines exist merely to decorate the walls of some Pottery Barn catalog spread. This is a library for a city that believes the book is dead.

Thankfully there are counterexamples. Vancouver, BC, also opened a new downtown library in 1996; a year later the Multnomah County Library completed renovation of its main branch in Portland. These libraries have become the civic hubs that Seattle boosters dream of, but they’ve done it by showcasing their books, not hiding them. Walk into Multnomah’s grand periodical reading room and you feel like drowning gloriously in magazines—there are more titles displayed here than anyone could read in a year. Browse downstairs at the Vancouver library’s children’s department, with its full, waist-high shelves (annoying for adults but perfect grasping height for children) and clean new carpet (all the better for sprawling on), and you’ll lose yourself again in A Wrinkle in Time and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. The books in these libraries are the centerpieces of their rooms. They rest on proud, well-marked shelves. In Vancouver a clear display-bin is bolted to the end of each shelf, which allows librarians to entice browsers with favorite titles.

Like the best independent bookstores, the Vancouver and Portland libraries understand the psychology of reading. At shops like Seattle’s Bailey/Coy Books and San Francisco’s City Lights, the titles on the front fiction and nonfiction tables are chosen with a curator’s eye. Browsing those tables, gazing at the cover art, letting your fingers trail across the jackets before picking one up to consider its heft, rekindles a desire blown cold by the superstore stacks: I must read this book. Context and presentation become integral parts of a book’s lure. Those librarians and booksellers realize that books aren’t merely bound collections of data; they’re objects with which we form some of the most intimate bonds in our lives. Proust had his madeline; I have Julie of the Wolves; my wife has Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill.

Great libraries do not attract readers, they make them. A couple of weeks ago I found myself caught in Portland with a free hour. I walked into the refurbished Multnomah main branch, plucked a few titles from the third-floor stacks, and claimed an inviting spot at a gorgeous dark-wood reading table. Low lamp lights set a clubby mood; here we were, me and the scruffian across the way leafing through a history of the Brooklyn Dodgers, men of learning at leisure. Three hours later I was still reading, and writing, with one appointment missed and another about to be. Libraries like this make bibliophiles of everyone who steps through the door.

Poor libraries repel readers. Nowhere is this more evident than at the downtown Seattle Public Library. Everything—from its cramped, badly marked stacks to its chronically oversubscribed tables to its creepy stairwell—reeks of shabbiness. Ever try to actually read there? Good luck, mate. It’s hard to say which will drive you out quicker, the fluorescent lighting or that hard-luck chair you’re scrunched into. The musty odor of staleness creeps into everything that enters the building.

I often feel embarrassed when I hear library administrators preach about the salvation of the Internet or the “changing concept of the library.” Their words carry the desperate edge of the 40-year-old scenester talking about drum-and-bass; you can practically see them reaching for relevancy. We’ve got to stay current! they tell their staffs. Internet connections are forward-thinking, fast, and sexy. Turning the library into a community center will please a multitude of local cultural groups. But that’s not why we need new libraries. We need them because books are slow and unsexy, because the activity they foment is solitary and the wisdom gained from a lifetime of reading doesn’t fade like the half-life of an Internet posting. We have enough browsers and surfers; we have enough data. What we need are readers, and with new libraries—real libraries—we will create them.