The Library as Meaningful Space

I grew up in a small town in south central Wisconsin — the town of Baraboo, population a little more than 8,000.  Baraboo is a town lucky enough to have a Carnegie Public Library.  Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist; he is sometimes referred to as the “patron saint of libraries.”  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, he was responsible for gifting 1,679 free public libraries to towns all over the United States, and 830 more in other English speaking countries of the world.  Sixty-three of those U.S. libraries are in my home state of Wisconsin, and one of those is in my home town of Baraboo.

The Baraboo Public Library was an important place for me when I was growing up.  I remember it vividly.

The Baraboo Public Library

The Baraboo Public Library

Upon entering through the front door of the library, a visitor looking straight ahead saw a very large hexagon-shaped wrap-around wooden library “desk” with a work space in the middle for the librarian.  In the back of this structure was an opening through which Miss Willard entered this strictly off-limits enclosed space (my friends and I, never!).  Open shelves within the wooden structure stored various library supplies and tools — paper, books, scissors, library glue, ink stamps for due dates, etc.  Imbedded in the flat, sloping surface of the “desk” — at the spot where Miss Willard sat — were three recessed wide slots full of library cards.  The slots and cards represented part of the filing system of the library. The massive desk and the embedded filing system were fascinating to me.

The large room to the right of the entryway was the children’s area.  I remember exactly where the Sue Barton Student Nurse books were shelved, reflecting my early ambitions to be a nurse.  I also remember another shelf that had sort of sex education books which we furtively looked into, greatly fearing that the librarian would “catch” us.  Also on the children’s side was the only restroom in the library, a commodious room (no pun intended) with a high ceiling and a toilet with the tank up high on the wall.  You had to pull a long chain to make it flush, and the flushing could be heard throughout the entire first floor space.  This, too, was fascinating.

The room to the left of the entry was for adults and resembled a reference room with encyclopedias and world books, a huge dictionary on a stand, a globe, newspapers, and a comfortable rocking chair by the window.  In an area back behind the big central desk were the classicsHeidi, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer, The Scarlet Letter, Little Women.  

Thinking about the Baraboo library reminds me of my Dad.  During my young adult years, he would spend quiet times there — sitting in the comfortable rocking chair, reading newspapers and browsing the bookshelves.

We all know that the library as a space and place in our everyday lives has changed dramatically in the last 25 years.  Perhaps at the extreme of these changes, a just-opened digital library in San Antonio, Texas, is entirely bookless.  Instead of books as we know them (you know, a cover and paper pages with print on them!), the Bexar County Digital Library has 10,000 e-books, 500 e-readers, 48 computers and 20 iPads, plus a children’s area, community rooms and “a Starbucksesque café to encourage collaboration among patrons in an inviting space” (Sanburn, 2013).  This library has absolutely zero printed material.

For now, the bookless library in San Antonio represents a radical shift in the services and inner environments of libraries and is likely not yet to be found elsewhere. In Western culture, we continue to have places in our societies and social lives where books are still, mostly, in the traditional form.  To many people, a book with a cover and printed paper pages serves to provide a sense of intimacy between the reader and the narrative — an intimacy that seems far less likely to be experienced when reading from a Nook or Kindle or iPad.

As some of you know, I have done volunteer work in a maximum security prison for men here in Wisconsin.  Thinking about this posting on the library as meaningful space has brought to mind the library at the prison.  The prison library with its shelves of books is, to some extent, a place of refuge from the uniformity of the prison cell blocks and cells and daily regimens. Here there are jobs for some of the prisoners — and a “job” is a hugely sought after opportunity for many of the men, offering a certain amount of status for the prisoner as well as some purpose and intellectual stimulation to their days.  Here also are library shelves full of books which offer these men that rare opportunity in the prison to make personal choices, and not just choices among two or three possibilities but choices among hundreds.  Here too, then, is the in-prison opportunity to take a real-world object back to your cell, an object that probably no one else has at that same time, an object that you “own” for a little while.  Reading a book can be like a private daily occupation when in prison — and privacy is a very precious commodity inside the walls.

Would the Nook or Kindle offer the same kind of personal experience to these men? Would it offer the same kind of personal experience to any of us?  Maybe. But to me, an e-book puts a greater distance between the book and the reader than a hard copy does. A sense of ownership and intimacy seems much less likely to be present.  

On the other hand, the ever-changing new technology makes the everyday occupation of reading available to more and more people who are otherwise unable to read the traditional printed page.  I know that.  For example, as is probably obvious, the need to be able to hold a book and turn pages is no longer required when reading an e-book, and print sizes on the screen can be adjusted to match people’s vision capabilities.

The person who spearheaded the development and design of the San Antonio digital library is confident that libraries in general will continue to evolve to be open, collaborative, and increasingly bookless.  He is quoted as saying that times are different; “Its not the old days where you go off in a corner and keep your mouth shut.  It’s a different world.”

Well . . . so far it’s not much of a different world for the men in the maximum security prison in Wisconsin.  Inside the walls, the men do still, metaphorically, go off in “a corner”  to read their books.  And I do the same thing when I am home.  I read by myself in the evening up in our den.  It seems the perfect way to end the day, quietly, in a “corner,” reading a good book and keeping my mouth shut.  

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Sanburn, S. (2013).  “Smoked Stacks.  Books are gone, but screens are bright in tomorrow’s library.  Time, October 7, p. 70.

7 thoughts on “The Library as Meaningful Space

  1. I was looking through blogs to read this evening and I stopped quite startled by what I was looking at. I know this building. It still looks the same today as it did many years ago. A new rain garden in the front of the library adds color in the summer. The children still poke their heads inside and hide among the stacks looking for interesting reads. Thank you for the wonderful story. You will find me in the Baraboo library on these cold weekends this winter.

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  2. Betty, boy, did this bring back memories! I grew up outside and went to school in Wellington, Ohio. We also had a Carnegie library, and it had much the same look and layout as yours. What a gift he gave the world of small town America!

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  3. Betty, during my childhood in my quiet St. Louis suburb, Glendale, we had the enthusiastically anticipated bookmobile that arrived every two weeks in the summer. I remember savoring the armload of books I carried to and from home and holing up in a corner to read, as you describe. The prison experience also resonates with me, as our son has exhausted all the resources on Eastern philosophy that his prison library offers, and yearns for more offerings. Additionally, through our Saint Louis University Prison Program, I’m aware of the extremely high value placed on books and learning by this population, who as you state, have such limited occupational options at their disposal.

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  4. Hi Betty – lovely to hear this celebration of libraries. We too have a Carnegie Library in our town here in the UK and I recently re-joined to find a fabulous resource all for free. I’m only sorry I don’t have more time to read fiction at the moment. Sue Barton District Nurse was a great inspiration to me – although I think I was most impressed by the sturdy cape she wore while bicycling around the district and it was this image that started my journey into healthcare!

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