Public Libraries as Place – or, Who Inherits the Legacy of Borders?

The Carnegie Corporation recently published the following article:

Today’s Public Libraries: Public Places of Excellence, Education and Innovation

Personally, I think this is the best summation of the value of public libraries I’ve read. I especially appreciate that the author talks about the importance of place in our culture.

Of course, whenever anyone talks about place in conjunction with books & media, it makes me miss Borders. For almost two decades, they managed to be the place for people to hang out and read in most urban areas in this country.

When Borders closed its doors last year, I wrote the following:

I’ve been seeing a very interesting reaction trend to Borders closing. Namely, people are talking about the Borders Experience, about how much they’ll miss it, and they use descriptions that, to my mind, should be what people expect from their local library.

Consider this statement made by Mike Edwards, the president of Borders Group, as quoted in a Detroit Free Press article published online on July 18, 2011:

“For decades, Borders stores have been destinations within our communities, places where people have sought knowledge, entertainment, enlightenment and connected with others who share their passion. Everyone at Borders has helped millions of people discover new books, music, movies, and we all take pride in the role Borders has played in our customers’ lives.”

And this is a FB status posted by a friend of mine from Chicago, in response to this article – Borders Forced to Liquidate, Close All Stores:

“I haven’t been to a Borders in some time… Still, this saddens me. There was a Borders in my Lincoln Park hood and near my office at City Hall, and I spent hours and hours in both of them. The experience will be missed.”

The thing that gets me is this – popular reaction to the closing of Borders has little to do with the loss of access to purchase materials. It seems (anecdotally) that what people miss is having the stores to hang out in. When a public library closes, though, while people lament the loss of a cultural institution (some with genuine feeling and some merely out of a sense of civic principle), they don’t talk as much about the loss of a place to hang out, or how much they’ll miss the “library experience”. People don’t seem to see libraries as social places to hang out the way Borders was. Is it because people think of libraries as being mainly about research? Is it because people assume that they won’t be allowed to talk/drink/eat in the library? Why aren’t libraries seen as being friendly the same way Borders was?

My fear – in answer to that last question – is that maybe, despite our best efforts, we’re not friendly.

So… How do libraries take this opportunity to change and fill the social role in our communities that Borders did? I admit that I’m biased, but I feel like this should have been our role to begin with! We offer a more extensive browsing & discovery experience, the same & better opportunities for like-minded people to meet and converse, and people can take materials home with them, free of charge!

This Carnegie article brings up the same set of questions: Why did Borders work so well as a place for people and libraries don’t?

Was it the livable modernity of Borders’ environment? Were their chairs and sofas more comfortable? Was it just that they had a greater quantity of comfy seats than many libraries do? Were their stores better lit?

Was it the fact that Borders customers tended to be more middle-class and upscale, whereas public libraries make it a point of pride to serve the underserved? Or, to put it less politely – was it the lack of smelly homeless people in Borders stores?

Is it the persistent (but incorrect) perception of libraries as places where you must be silent and studious, where librarians shush you and you’re not allowed to speak above a whisper?

Speaking for myself – it was the magazines. I’d spend a few hours every week at Borders, reading through all the newest magazines. I’ve never seen a public library with a magazine collection that could rival theirs.

Whatever it was, Borders had a reputation as a hang-out spot for literate professionals, artists, and students. I think that libraries feel too functional and mission-driven for people to see them as casual hang-out spots. Libraries are institutions dedicated to the public good – and I’m afraid that makes them too sacrosanct for something as pedestrian and uninspired as a comfy place to relax. Libraries are hallowed ground.

This presents us with an odd catch-22: to take on the role-of-place left empty by Borders, do libraries need to transform themselves into spaces less rarified? If we do that, though, do we then run the risk of under-valuing the necessary role we play in the maintenance of the public good and our communal ideals of self-improvement and continuing education?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I don’t really know why Borders worked so well as place and libraries don’t. If we can figure that out, maybe we can finally fill the necessary role of place in our communities the way we always should have.

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