If you were to stand in the middle of the North Clairemont library and take a slow 360, a typical afternoon might look and sound like this:
Start with my friend Terry on computer number one. (Hey, Terry!) Sitting next to him, a La Jolla–look blonde, classy gold jewelry clanking, is word processing like crazy. (Trying to beat the clock? Computers time out in one hour. No exceptions.) Across from Terry is a black man in dreadlocks.
Next to Dreadlocks, a librarian helps an agitated woman, who looks as if she bombed banks in the ’60s, remove the Internet filter so she can access a blocked website. (Love to see what that is.)
Waiting their turn, two young gentlemen with shaved heads and sleeve tattoos explain the computer queuing system to a stooped, elderly woman who has trouble hearing.
Emery Greene, 10, keeps his excitement tamped down to library level as he plays games on one of the library’s two kid-friendly computers. (A treat his mom Rosie is allowing since these computers are faster than theirs at home.) Next to Emery, two girls share a chair, a mouse, and the giggles.
To their left, a small children’s area claims the northeast corner of the library. A little kid runs out of it shrieking full blast, “I found Nemo! I found Nemo!”
“I found Nemo!” He runs past the library tables where three Gen Y representatives — Robert, Scott, and Ishani — grab Wi-Fi for their laptops. Robert is surfing sailing websites. Scott is job hunting. Ishani, an SDSU graduate student, does homework.
They don’t seem to notice Nemo Boy or the fun and games leaking over from Lynette Toma’s table. Toma is a speech therapist contracted by city charter schools and one of the growing number of independent contractors using public library space as workplace. She meets her homeschooled student clients at their neighborhood libraries, the only downside being other children wanting to join in her instructional games.
“I found Nemo!” Nemo Boy almost collides with a Chinese man reading the Union-Tribune by the large window in the northwest corner. A few humble rows of magazines and newspapers designate this as a reading zone, except when it’s cleared for special events.
There’s Mulapi Enjani, head down, working hard at a carrel. Enjani comes across town by bus from his home on El Cajon Boulevard, often here when the doors open, to work on his high school diploma through Urban Corps of San Diego County. “It’s safer here,” says Enjani. “No violence and no troublemakers.” (Ah, Mulapi, someday I need to tell you the history of this place.)
Over in the stacks, a tall, thin man in glasses (a guybrarian?) shelves books, while Sharon Thomerson, North Clairemont Branch manager, steers a lady patron past Juana, a nanny, who browses English-language audiotapes. “Excuse me,” Thomerson murmurs, in a perfectly modulated librarian voice.
“Excuse me,” Thomerson says again, stepping in front of Vencion, a strapping young man with a large backpack. He’s working the stacks like a pro, under the watchful eye of Yvonne Staub. She and Vencion come by bus twice a week as part of his community-based instruction at Del Sol Academy.
At the checkout desk, Linda, the pretty librarian who looks like Emmylou Harris, calmly assists a line of patrons. Charter School of San Diego student Todd Gross, 17, is up. He’s checking out New York Times best seller Holy Blood, Holy Grail (944/BAIGENT).
“I found Nemo!” Nemo Boy’s mom finally tackles him by the DVDs, where Ron Wilkerson and his girlfriend Karen Larsen shop for movies.
They’re joking with another man, a stranger, pretending to fight over the same DVD. The three laugh, some of the loudest, most engaging laughter you may ever hear in a library.
“Go on. Take it. That old baseball movie.” Wilkerson grins. “Seen it a hundred times.”
“You ever see The Old Man and the Sea?” Larsen asks the stranger. “It’s Ernest Hemingway.”
Big laughter from Wilkerson. “Yeah, well, she thinks she’s a fisherwoman. So when we asked them for it, they had it delivered from another library and then sent us the notice it was here to be picked up. Where else can you get that? It’s a killer deal.”
My First Social Outing at a Library
I often think, when the life of this little library swirls around me, that the gates of the fortress of knowledge — that “sanctuary” of William Styron’s and my past — have been stormed by the masses. But young Todd Gross disagrees. “Relaxing” is how he describes North Clairemont. For him, it’s a place where “the weight of the world just drops from your shoulders.”
Maybe this is what best characterizes today’s libraries and predicts their future: a chameleonic ability to be all things to all patrons. Certainly it’s the quality that makes the North Clairemont library truly public.
Our country’s first libraries weren’t public. They were private collections for an elite few. Not until 1859, when the Boston Public Library opened its doors, was there a publicly funded municipal library in the United States (or in the world, depending on your source). Inscribed above the Boston library’s grand entrance are the words “Free to All.”
From the beginning, public libraries, even the smallest, were social places, with space dedicated to public gathering, events, and programs. Boston Public Library was built with a palatial central courtyard and sculpture garden, which drew fashionable promenaders from the day it opened.
I had always taken my libraries straight up. Books, research, a few videos. But here I am, on a recent Saturday afternoon, at a “Local Author Event,” my first official social outing at a library. The oak tables are pushed back, and 50 folding chairs fill a quarter of North Clairemont library’s precious space.
Kellen, 5, and his mom, Jane, kneel on the floor near the front. Kellen may have been suckered in by the promise of a free raffle ticket, but just minutes into the program, he’s as captivated by Debra Lee Baldwin and her table full of show-and-tell plants as we grown-ups are, many of whom arrived early, clutching Baldwin’s book.