When asked how San Diego libraries manage to do all they do, a top library administrator speaking off-record says, “Creativity.”
I Love Libraries
I’m way ahead of the current generation. For me, libraries always have been, as they were for author William Styron, “my private club, my sanctuary, the place of my salvation.”
Styron waited out his call to the front lines of WWII in the Duke University library, and of that time, he wrote, “…reading in the library I was sheltered from the world and from the evil winds of the future; no harm could come to me there.” My sanctuary was the Carnegie library of downtown Tyler, Texas, where I found shelter from my father, the evil wind of my childhood. My mother would drop me off to spend Saturday afternoons on my own in the cool, dignified, and safe quiet. I’d do homework, read, or just discover stuff. Like the time I figured out I could find real photos of the murdered people — the Clutter family — in the novel I was reading, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, by looking them up in a back issue of Life magazine. This was a startling find: real people in the pages of a novel!
I wrote my master’s thesis in the main library of Mr. Jefferson’s University of Virginia. Derailed in the Appalachian Mountains by marriage, I helped my husband and other community leaders start a library in our remote coal-mining town, Richlands, Virginia. My marriage ended, but the library thrived. I still check its progress online.
When I had money, I used libraries less. But always, when I moved somewhere new, which I did often, I’d use the nearest library as a kind of ballast, to orient myself in a strange place. That’s how I ended up at the North Clairemont Branch Library.
From my home, the North Clairemont library is a pleasant 15-minute walk down shaded side streets. It’s no library rock star. Just one of the workhorse branches of the San Diego Public Library system, not the biggest or smallest, newest or oldest. Built in 1962, it’s a mostly flat box painted a clownish combo of turquoise and orange.
The library sits modestly back from the curb. Driving by, you may miss it. Yet, stop and look, and you’ll see it’s a small jewel, sporting the best aspects of its zippy modernist design, which is amazing since the North Clairemont library has survived two fires, including one in 1980 that gutted it.
Out front, there’s room for loitering. The extended roofline and low wall running across the front of the library create a sheltered promenade; a useful transitional space (rare in cheap, new construction) that doesn’t rush you in or out and is perfect for smokers, cell-phone users, and teenagers. By the parking lot, on the library’s shady side, are philodendrons watered to the size of woolly mammoths.
Inside, the North Clairemont Branch Library is what you’d expect. Books, computers, fluorescent lights, institutional furniture, industrial carpet, copy machine. A bulletin board reminds us that it’s the Year of the Rat or National Poetry Month. We don’t have art like the new libraries, which have benefited from the largesse of the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture. We do have a large glass display case featuring the personal collections of North Clairemonters; in past months, Zak Hinkley’s Rubik’s Cubes or the ceramic pansies of Charlotte Eastland.
What’s overhead is less expected. Like a glassy swell at dawn, the wavy cantilevered ceiling floats over (and past) roofline windows, which give off soft, indirect light on two sides. These ’50s design elements offer respite in the multipurpose space.
Over the years I’ve recognized maybe four or five faces who seem to be on permanent staff, although it’s not uncommon to be served by an ultra-officious outside librarian, sent from the Central Library to help out in a pinch. These outsiders don’t seem as fun as our regular librarians, most of whom are the kind of women who, besides being professional, also wear toe rings and tuck flowers in their hair or streak it green for St. Patrick’s Day.
It feels odd to hang out here as much as I do and not know for sure who the regular staff is. Ironically, this information and all other levels of service — collections size, circulation, patronage numbers, and budget — is information unavailable at the library. It’s not available for any San Diego branch library, nor is a general idea of how financial decisions are made within the branches.
For all I know, it may be Mayor Sanders himself, our strong mayor, who decrees North Clairemont deserving of only four full-hour adult computers or two special events per month.
No Shushing at This Library
What I do know is that something’s up at my library.
For one thing, there’s the noise.
This joint is jumping. Morning, noon, and night. Full parking lot, checkout lines six folks deep, Laundromat-style waits for the computers. It’s like the entire American public library scene compressed into a single room not much larger than a Starbucks.
Library patron and city bus driver Ron Wilkerson, 50, wouldn’t have it any other way. He plots his daily route to take his breaks at the North Clairemont library, parking his bus at the terminal across the street. Wilkerson started hanging out in libraries to stay out of trouble when he was a kid. But as libraries go, North Clairemont is special, he says, because it’s “more energetic, more family.”
These days I spot so many regulars and run into so many people I know that trips to North Clairemont library feel like stopping by my neighborhood bar — with, of course, the added benefit of being able to leave sober and with a copy of The Letters of John Keats, volume one (Harvard University Press 1958).
So, for instance, when I see my neighbor and surf buddy Terry Goldsmith over at the computer bank, I really must go over and say hey. And if my fiancé Steve is with me, then he has to say hey too, which of course leads to a bit of a chat. Back in the day, we might have whispered nervously, waiting for the lady librarian with a mustache to bust us. Now, not to speak seems rude.