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A Shared Public Space

June 2, 2014

The outcry was such that plans for scuttling the New York Public Library’s flagship—the research library at 5th Ave. and 42nd St., with the famous lions out front—have been abandoned.

The plans had included extensive remodeling to provide a circulating collection, computer commons, cafe service, and the like, along with closing other branches and combining them all. The plans were largely developed in secret, and once public, a great many people were incensed.

There are many issues; but only half of the NYPL expenses are covered by the city, and the library owns much valuable real estate, and you can imagine any number of scenarios from there.

In this case, I think the world laid claim to the research library, one of the greatest, but many in NYC enjoyed its presence, and one has to wonder at the economic forces that can push cities to abandon amenities that invite and justify city living. Real estate inflation is a big one.

However, “amenity” might imply something less than crucial, and I would consider a city without public places such as libraries, museums, parks, paths, plazas, riverfronts, etc., to be unlivable.

I attended the annual Colorado public library directors meeting last week and heard about all kinds of things libraries are doing in their respective communities, each of which has its unique circumstances. The libraries fulfill the very idea of “amenity” (and its dictionary synonyms: civility, attention, courtesy, gesture, pleasantry, politeness).

According to local needs, Colorado libraries are creating Wifi hotspots outside the library, searching for the hidden homeless population, working with the community to feed children after school (with the added benefit of improving their behavior in the library) …,

Sponsoring autism support groups, building a very successful non-fiction reading program for children, working with the Lions Club to offer eyesight testing for children as part of the summer reading program, training childcare providers about early literacy needs …,

promoting digital literacy, building digital production workspaces, digitizing local history archives, offering cyber-clinics, extending the free lunch program for students into the summer programs at the library, participating in school readiness cohorts …,

and those are just a few scribbled notes I took. These kinds of things go on in addition to the familiar library service of providing and sharing collections of books, DVDs, CDs, etc., which users accept as a kind of utility, like gas and electric, water and sewer.

In Colorado, the sharing of collections improves all the time, with more libraries joining consortia such as Marmot, Prospector, and AspenCat. We belong to the first two; AspenCat is a newer collective of now 52 libraries that together make up the equivalent of the fourth largest library in Colorado.

As a Salida library patron, you can request among 30 million items across Marmot and Prospector libraries, and those items usually show up quickly via Colorado’s library courier service.

Early literacy is a big focus of Colorado libraries, using such programs as “A Thousand Books Before Kindergarten.” As they say, “earlier is easier.” Our education dollars should be biased this way. Public libraries are the primary support for the 0-3 age group and a very big one for pre-K. This service may be the most important thing libraries do.

But important, too, is being a shared public space, a place anyone can be without having to buy something, a place providing access to the intellectual content of our society for enjoyment and improvement, and a place for people of all ages.

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