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Grace Carroll is the kind of girl you’d trust for a scoop on the San Diego scene. She’s pretty, blonde, smart. She tends bar in one of La Jolla’s hottest restaurants, where the clientele isn’t much older than the twentysomething chef, who may have been the first here to foist celery foam on culinary early-adopters.

“I can’t believe you haven’t been.” Carroll’s voice lowers to conspiracy level as she pours our drinks. “The space is totally amazing. Sometimes I go just to hang out.”

This insider tip we get with our sauvignon blanc is not about a club, microbrew pub, or boutique. It’s a library. The Mission Valley Branch of the San Diego Public Library.

Last year more than half of all Americans visited a library at least once, according to a new report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. But the real kicker is this: the age group most likely to use a library is none other than Carroll’s tech-savvy, wired-from-the-womb Generation Y (18 to 30 years old).

An informal survey of San Diego State University undergraduates in Katie Hughes’s writing and composition classes offers a variety of nonacademic ways Gen Y students use libraries: from sleeping to playing computer games, from checking out Oprah-recommended novels for “recreational reading” to researching databases for music. One student enthuses, “It seems easier to meet girls at the library than at frat parties!” And another, “When I go to the library to study, ‘cruising’ is always expected.”

Out at Chili’s for lunch, I spot a guy who looks like a skater, Howard Dunson, 25, reading a newspaper at the bar. I ask him about libraries. He answers that reading and browsing city libraries — Linda Vista and Mission Valley — are “hobbies” of his; librarygoing is his “leisure.” An older sister turned him on to libraries when they were kids. “Reading keeps you on track,” Dunson says. “I look for what catches my eye. Other languages. Math. A book on car engines. Last time I was there, I picked up a book on the human brain and learned a bunch on it that’s cool.”

Any doubt that Gen Y is the cohort careening Miss Daisy’s bookmobile down the information superhighway is dispelled when I check out new libraries across the county, specifically the one in Encinitas, which opened in February. Getting this library built was a community soap opera: on the city books for ten years, construction costs double original budget, fractious city council meetings, revenue juggling, bloggers who said it wasn’t green enough.

But finished, this library is worth a road trip.

Sunken reading lounge. Wi-Fi sun terrace. Glassed-in meeting rooms with views of the Pacific. Staggered computers designed for privacy; no ruined sightlines. Wii entertainment systems. Espresso cart. Used-book shop worthy of a Berkeley bibliophile.

Public library staffs are getting makeovers too. Younger librarians are more “high-tech information sleuths” than traditional bookworms, declares U.S. News and World Report, which named “librarian” as one of the top careers of 2008.

You can spot the hipsters behind the checkout desks. Chances are they’re working on or got their graduate degree online from San José State, which has the largest library and information science program in the world. The program relies almost exclusively on distance learning, attracting 2200 online students from 12 different countries.

“There’s a more relaxed feeling in libraries now,” says Cathy Straitiff, a 28-year veteran school librarian and the driving force behind San Dieguito Academy’s new media center/library, the most popular gathering place on campus. “Librarians are being taught to make a friendly place and not shh-shh-shh.”

Here in the City of San Diego, there’s a definite library scene. In the last six years, three cruiseworthy branch libraries opened — in Mission Valley, Serra Mesa, and UTC — while ground was broken for a fourth in Logan Heights, to be six times larger than the old library, currently one of the city’s smallest at 3967 square feet. The new two-story branch will feature a computer lab with 35 computers for classes or students, 31 public-access computers, “Centro Cultural” community galleria/exhibit area, a preschooler learning center, and the city’s largest Spanish-language film, book, and music collections.

The mayor’s office claims that last year more than six million individuals visited city libraries. Twenty-seven percent of these visitors (1.6 million) went high-speed via library computers. A thousand San Diegans learned to read or read in English courtesy of the library’s free literacy program, READ/San Diego. And last year, all 1.3 million of us official San Diegans, including Mayor Sanders, rapper Lil’ Wayne, and the San Diego Chargers, were invited to read the same book when the library inaugurated a citywide book club, One Book, One San Diego.

San Diego’s current library budget is $38,362,037. In the proposed budget for fiscal year 2009, which begins July 1, it drops to $35,315,605. That’s roughly 3 percent of the City’s general fund, the bulk of which (61 percent) is derived from property, sales, and hotel occupancy taxes. There is little state or federal assistance for public libraries.

Of the City pie, the Library Department scores less than half the funding that Park and Rec gets.

Which comes down to this: per capita, the City spends about $28.95 per San Diegan on libraries, the same level of munificent library spending found in Americus, Kansas, or Aztec, New Mexico. (In comparison, the City of Carlsbad spends almost $100 per citizen on libraries; San Francisco, $72.81.)

The 2008 budget stated that there were no library capital improvements (remodeling, new construction) scheduled in San Diego this past fiscal year because of “the city’s inability to enter the public bond market.” However, funding for the new Logan Heights Branch Library comes from “a $5.25 million state library grant, with additional support from the First 5 Commission of San Diego County, developer fees, and federal funding,” according to “Check Us Out,” an official publication of the San Diego Public Library and its foundation.

Overall, not bad for a nonessential services department in a city struggling to stay solvent in a state whose public libraries rank 44th nationwide.

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.

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.

It’s standing room only. “The most exciting event we’ve had!” branch manager Sharon Thomerson gushes, as she introduces author Baldwin. Excitement suffuses Thomerson’s ordinarily careful face, as if, looking out at the full house, she’s just seen the Future of Libraries.

Baldwin takes the microphone and works it — and the library patrons — like a pro. She’s just back from a short book tour, and her book, Designing with Succulents, she tells us, is one of Amazon’s best-selling garden books of 2007, into its third printing and soon to be translated into French. Yet here she is doing a book gig, not at Barnes and Noble or Warwick’s, but in the North Clairemont Branch Library. “A free event, and we’re giving away free plants! When does that ever happen?” Baldwin’s amplified voice is as loud as a cheerleader’s.

Never mind that after the event Baldwin is selling her book ($30) and an exclusive Succulent Plant Palette and Landscaping Guide on CD-ROM ($20). It is a free event and she is giving away free plants, kindly donated by plant nursery Daylily Hill, which also gets plenty of plugs throughout the lecture. No one seems to care one jot that this event is an opportunity for Baldwin to sell stuff within taxpayer-provided meeting space.

This event, nevertheless, nails all four points of the San Diego Public Library “Mission Statement,” a succinct directive built on an acrostic, a bit of literary whimsy.

Respond to the information needs of San Diego’s diverse communities.

Ensure equal access to local, national, and global resources.

Anticipate and address the educational, cultural, business, and recreational interests of the public.

Develop and provide welcoming environments.

So here we are. Fully welcomed, having our needs and interest in drought-tolerant landscaping anticipated and met by Debra Lee Baldwin, who offers us free and equal access to information and a raffle.

Fifty people gathered on a Saturday afternoon with no other connection than their curiosity. Men, women, a gay couple, Kellen. Asian, white, black, Latino. Friends, strangers, and neighbors. Strangers feeling safe enough to speak to strangers. One man recognizes a guy that he’d met in a horticulture workshop at Mesa College, and they shake hands like old friends. Everyone cheers the first winner of the plant raffle, a single woman whom no one seems to know personally.

Last year there were more than 7000 events and classes hosted by the San Diego Public Library system, including feng shui, tax preparation, yoga for babies, meditation, knitting, opera, computer, drumming, gardening, Tibetan medicine, Michelangelo’s poetry, and U.S. citizenship. There are free music concerts, free tutoring, and homework help. Movie nights include free showings of first-run international independent and documentary films, as well as classic films in Spanish and English.

In fact, the only real downer about library events can be not knowing about them. When I mentioned the Baldwin “Author Event” to my friend Janet Evans, she was disappointed to have missed it. She had just bought Designing with Succulents. Katie Hughes, professor of rhetoric and writing at SDSU, where Three Cups of Tea is the all-campus summer reading assignment, had never heard of the San Diego Public Library’s One Book, One San Diego program, which featured Three Cups of Tea earlier this year, nor had she heard that its author, Greg Mortenson, had been in town to speak.

Keeping up with what’s happening at your local branch is as easy as reading posters pasted on the front door or picking up flyers from the check-out desk. For events at other libraries, you can check calendars in local publications and online. The San Diego Public Library website has a calendar, searchable by location, branch, date, or kind of event. You also can subscribe to the Library Connection, an e-newsletter that promotes the cream of the crop, such as the “Author Event” in March featuring Pulitzer Prize–winner Tracy Kidder at the Central Library. (Unlike Debra Lee Baldwin, Kidder donated proceeds from event sales of his book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, to the library.)

As an online tool, the San Diego library website is less than cool. Even with its new “Online Catalog,” it’s gray as June gloom and as user-friendly as the Library of Congress. Finding, ordering, and renewing materials online are great resources, but the links and procedures on the library website can be confusing until you master them.

This curse of information density is nothing new. You may remember your first trip to the library and facing that vast warehouse of stockpiled information manned by alternately reticent and bossy librarians, fluent in Dewey decimal, microfiche, card catalog, and periodicals index. One of the SDSU students I surveyed simply responded, “I’ve never felt comfortable in libraries.”

But here today, at North Clairemont library’s “Author Event,” the gates of the fortress of knowledge have been stormed. This is library as fun zone, and branch manager Thomerson is anything but reticent as she plays Vanna White to Baldwin’s Pat Sajak, parading succulents through the ooohing, aahing crowd.

While the amplified author tells the story of a San Diego homeowner who claimed her house was saved from the recent wildfires by its succulent garden, North Clairemont patrons browse the stacks, read, and work at the computer bank. No one seems put out by our noise. And conversely, no one seems to worry about interrupting our event. For an hour, we manage to coexist peacefully in our separate and various pursuits of information.

How cool is that?

One by one, Sharon Thomerson calls out winning raffle numbers. Young Kellen has his eye on a pot of kitten paws (Cotyledon tomentosa), but it goes quickly as winners come forward to choose their plant prizes. Due to cuts, the library closes at 2:30 on Saturdays, visibly one of the busiest days of the week, and it’s now 2:25. Baldwin looks up from her book signing and invites those who haven’t yet won to please help themselves to the plant cuttings from her garden still left on the table.

When he leaves, Kellen clutches two little green parasols of aeonium and four Where’s Waldo books. We grown-ups clutch our day’s prizes just as tightly. Walking out together, into the afternoon sun, admiring each other’s new plants, it almost feels as though we should head out together for a beer. The two guys who met years ago in the horticulture class make plans to visit each other’s gardens.

With doors finally locked, library staff put away chairs and move heavy tables back into place. Gardening books laid out for browsing before the event, now wallflowers after the dance, are stacked for reshelving on Monday.

Library events are meant to make people check out stuff. That’s because circulation — the total number of books, CDs, DVDs, videos checked out in a year — is the library bottom line. It’s the one number libraries use to prove their worth. (That would be 7.1 million items a year for the San Diego Public Library.) It’s a good year if circulation rises, bad if circulation dips.

“The public library is well liked. It has a positive image in the community, but a lot of people who think ‘library’ think only of books,” says Joe Matthews. “But everybody coming into the library doesn’t use the library the same way, and that’s one of the problems in relying on a single measure of goodness, like circulation.”

Matthews is a library consultant, the author of several books on library management, an online library sciences instructor for San José State, and a Carlsbad public library patron.

“The public library is the most heavily used public amenity in any community, bar none,” says Matthews. “Research also shows that when there’s a downturn in the economy, public library usage goes up. Yet because it’s an easy target for funding decision makers, libraries are often the first place to be cut to help balance the budget.”

Matthews wants to see libraries step up their fiscal self-defense. He advocates a concept from Harvard Business School called the “Balanced Scorecard,” which measures library performance in four areas: “finances, customer satisfaction, operations, and organizational readiness.” According to Matthews, the research results, like a school report card, can provide clear information a library can use to plan its future, demonstrate fiscal responsibility, and better communicate how it benefits the community.

He partnered with public libraries across the country (including Carlsbad and Chula Vista) in a pilot program made possible by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Out of this, Matthews developed a “Balanced Scorecard” workbook for libraries, which he will present next week at the American Library Association annual conference in Anaheim.

When Matthews talks libraries, he generally means whole systems like the San Diego Public Library or community libraries like Carlsbad, which receives money directly from the City of Carlsbad, as well as county library funds. But when I ask him about the management of, say, a library like North Clairemont, which is a local branch of a large city system, he becomes more reticent. He admits that branch libraries tend not to be “transparent.” When I ask why, Matthews hesitates, then answers, “If there was a concerted demand to show accountability, I suspect [branch] libraries would be responsive. By and large it’s kind of viewed as management’s prerogative, and the public’s just not interested in that nitty-gritty operational detail of the library.”

I guess he’s right. Over a glass of wine one night, when I mention to a neighbor friend that I am writing a story on the North Clairemont Branch Library but having trouble getting anyone official to talk to me about library funding, she gasps and says, “Oh, no! They’re cutting our hours again! They’re closing our library!” I assure her that this isn’t true, or at least as far as I know.

The staff I ask either don’t know or won’t tell me how funding comes to their branch libraries or, for instance, who grants their raises. Sharon Thomerson refers me to the Library Department’s senior public information officer, Marion Moss Hubbard. But after checking with the mayor’s office, Moss Hubbard, who is herself an author and co-owner of Heroic Journey Consulting, a San Diego company that “works with individuals and organizations to help them make sense of their ‘experience fragments,’ ” says she will not speak to me, nor am I permitted to speak to any city library employee. I also have no luck with Friends of the Library, the volunteer organization that supports public libraries with private fund-raising.

When it comes to library fact-finding, the San Diego City Council doesn’t fare much better, as I learned from Clairemont’s councilmember Donna Frye. She tells me that she and other councilmembers repeatedly have asked Mayor Sanders’s office for simple, one-page summaries of service levels at each branch library, to no avail. Without this information — budgets, collections size, circulation, patronage numbers, and staff sizes — it’s impossible for citizens or city council members to know the status of individual libraries, what’s getting cut, or how the city library budget is divvied up between administration, the 35 branches, and the Central Library.

“You can’t correct the issues you’re never told exist,” Frye says.

My neighbor’s fears turn out to be justified. On April 8 Mayor Sanders announces his proposed 2009 budget, cutting over $3 million from the Library Department and 22 library personnel. But which 22 and where? We won’t know until they’re gone.

“What specific factors they use in order to determine how those decisions are made is a great question. I wish I could answer that for you,” Frye says, followed by a chagrinned chuckle.

She also says that she and other councilmembers have had trouble getting librarians and branch managers within their districts to speak up about their libraries’ needs. Last year, it was a patron who informed Frye that the Clairemont and North Clairemont branch libraries had not one children’s librarian between them. Frye promptly sent off a memo, and the squeaky wheel was oiled. The two libraries were granted a shared children’s librarian, to create, schedule, and supervise children’s programs and collections.

Why are librarians afraid to speak up? My friend Rick Fox, a librarian at the Hewlett-Woodmere Public Library in Nassau County, New York, says that library people are just that way, whether by temperament or training. They’re public servants, he says. Purveyors of information, not opinion. Polite but not personal. Never attention-seeking. He tells me to consult the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics.

But when I do, I find Article II, which states, “We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.” Mightn’t information concerning a branch library’s levels of service — say, for instance, a list of permanent staff — be considered a resource?

Story Time with Miss Trish

I choose to wash my library-funding blues away with a strong dose of Miss Trish.

Miss Trish is the North Clairemont story lady. Her devotees come from all over the city, half an hour early, to get a front-row seat. On Thursday mornings, by 10:25, the library sounds like curtain time at a Disney musical. Tiny bodies logjam the floor. The periphery is a stroller parking lot.

The story timers are moms, grandmothers, aunts, babysitters, dads, boyfriends, and, of course, children, of every color and energy level. Everybody seems really happy to see each other.

Simon Jones, a dad, and Maya, his poppet in green tights, know a lot of Miss Trish’s story timers from playing in nearby Gershwin Park. That’s where Ramdai, who babysits Karina, heard about Miss Trish from Casey and Channing’s mom, Carina. Melissa brought her friend Colette, who’s shopped other library story times around San Diego.

“How do you start reading if you can’t get excited about books?” asks Colette, a cute mom who is originally from South Africa. “There are some story times we’ve been to that are very strict. You can’t go past a certain area. You have to be quiet, or you have to leave. Which is what I love about Miss Trish. She doesn’t freak out when the kids walk up to the story table.”

No, she does not.

No, Miss Trish dances the hokey-pokey. And when she reads a train story, she wears an engineer’s hat and a bandanna around her neck and cues the dad who blows the wooden whistle that sounds just like the 3:10 to Yuma. Miss Trish’s story time, like her sing-along, is 100 percent interactive. “This train is yellow!” the kids shout out. “That train is red!” And yet, during the stories, there are moments of complete thralldom, when you can hear an empty sippy cup drop.

Otherwise it’s a literacy hoedown. We follow directions, sit still and listen, answer questions about the text, learn a new song with lyrics written on a blackboard, and sing with gusto old favorites (which I’m told are also sung a jillion times at home).

Even the grown-ups learn a thing or two from Miss Trish, aka Patricia Hinkley, Clairemont Town Council president, library staffer, book lover, and mother of Rubik’s Cube collector Zak.

“I used to just grab the book, read it, and say, ‘Okay, now it’s time to go to sleep,’ ” says Rachel Jimenez, Lesly’s mom. “Now I become part of the story, asking questions when we read, about the author, about what the middle of the story says, about the end.”

Too soon the fun is over, and a slew of strollers lines up to check out books and videos.

“It’s important for us parents to be here,” Jimenez says, happy that her husband, Juan Carlos Gomez, was able to accompany her and Lesly on a rare day off from work. “When they grow up they’ll remember this.”

That’s what the library’s counting on. In her new book for library professionals, The Thriving Library: Successful Strategies for Challenging Times (025.1974/BLOCK), Marylaine Block makes it clear that children are the Future of Libraries. “That’s where the population is,” Block writes, also noting that “services for children are strongly supported by taxpayers” and that when children come to libraries, they bring an “entourage” — parents, babysitters, siblings, and friends. “Once kids are in the door, librarians can work on their ultimate goal: to entice kids into reading.”

Luz Culp, who as Señora C leads the bilingual story time on Tuesdays, is proof this strategy works. She grew up in North Clairemont, spending her free time at the library, always participating in the summer reading program. “So I could get that blue star!” Culp says. Now she’s on the library staff, while pursuing her library science degree online from San José State.

Another lifelong patron, Madison High School clerk Mary Trombley hung out at North Clairemont library in the 1970s. “You know how, in the summer, when you thought, ‘I can’t play barefoot another day outside in the sprinkler’?” Trombley recalls fondly, “It was always ‘We could go to the library!’ ”

There weren’t books at home, and her parents wouldn’t let her have a library card, so Trombley and her friends rode their bikes to North Clairemont to read. She laughs, remembering, “The Mouse and the Motorcycle! The best book ever written!”

Trombley raised her sons at North Clairemont Branch Library. She tiled two bathrooms and slipcovered furniture using how-to library books. And she still browses the stacks for fun. The only thing different about the library almost 40 years later, she says, is that the computers are where the card catalogs used to be; otherwise it’s “all just the same.”

Except, of course, it isn’t.

Almost nothing divides people on the subject of today’s libraries more than the public computers. For some of us, computers haven’t just changed the library landscape. They’re Conan the Barbarian, conquering hero pillaging our dusty village of books. We fear computers are a sign that books (and maybe libraries themselves) will have no place in the New Age.

Ask others, and you’ll likely hear a disparaging remark about “free Internet cafés” in a tone that suggests that libraries offering public computers might as well throw in TV, beer, and peanuts.

Ask computer patrons, and you mostly hear that the computers are “fine.” North Clairemont has eight computers (four that adults can use for one hour and two they can use 15 minutes, plus two computers for children). The connection is Road Runner broadband. No signup or library card necessary. Not a bad deal in a world that increasingly assumes everyone has access to the Internet for job applications, email, and sale prices.

How the debate plays out at North Clairemont is most evident in the overworked staff, who seem to regard the computers as tantamount to the changing table in the restroom. Necessary, but somebody else’s job. As posted, rule number one is “Patrons are expected to use computers without Library Staff Assistance.” Sure enough, when I finish my first session and am not sure how to leave the computer ready for the next patron, I ask a staff person, who has no idea.

Every time I’ve heard patrons request pages they’ve printed (at 15 cents a page), there have been problems. One man whose print job had not come through was told to try a different branch with better computer facilities. Todd Gross, who uses library computers daily for school assignments, emails them “to someone else’s house to print it out for free” or sends work straight to his teachers.

Look at patrons at a computer bank, and again, you see the Future of Libraries. The only thing this diverse group shares is the driven look of someone who’s being timed. (“Exceeding posted time will result in suspension or revocation of Internet privileges at this branch.”) On the other hand, the communal queue system is amazingly zen. People obey the rules and calmly wait their turn. There may be unpleasantness over the computers, but I’ve never seen it.

However, there are computer developments that everyone agrees on. The Netflix-style system allows patrons to order online from San Diego’s three-million-item collection to be delivered to any branch, free. Also, patrons can register for notifications to come by email when items have arrived and when materials are due.

Two things, however, I won’t be ordering online anytime soon are downloadable ebooks (to be read on computer or on devices like Amazon’s Kindle) or audio-ebooks (which can be transferred to an iPod or mp3 player). I prefer my books the old-fashioned way.

Steve Jobs, Apple CEO, has no use for the Kindle either, but for a different reason. He sees no future in electronic books, commercial or otherwise. “The fact is people don’t read anymore,” he pronounced this past January.

Who am I to argue with the man who knows more about us than we do? Except for this niggling little math problem: If nationwide, public library attendance figures are up, and 2008 Pew Internet and American Life research shows that library users are more likely to be 18 to 30 years of age and have high-speed Internet at home or work, then what are all these people coming to the North Clairemont Branch Library for?

“Books,” says Todd Gross. “I’d rather read a book than watch TV any day.”

“Books,” says Sharon Graham, who admits to checking out books by the box load.

“Books,” says Wendy Dick, a La Jolla mom who frequents North Clairemont when it has the books she or her children want.

“Books,” say Brian and Alba Pierini, a young Clairemont couple landscaping their first home with California native plants, guided by research from library books and hikes to the desert, accompanied by James Lightner’s San Diego County Native Plants (580.97949).

“Sports books,” says Mulapi Enjani, who learned to use a library from his middle school teacher when he and his family emigrated from Rwanda and he wanted “to learn English faster.”

One day in North Clairemont I watch a girl, maybe ten years old but small for her age, wander between the tall bookshelves of the adult section. Her red T-shirt is stretched out, her hair not recently washed. She came in with a man who might be her father and a boy who might be her brother. The boy went straight to the computers, the man to a reading chair where he’s fallen asleep, but the girl runs her little hand along book spines, studying them intently, pulling out a book, thumbing through it, putting it back, pulling out the next book and the next, all the way down the aisle.

How well I know the feeling! My life has been changed by the most random library books. Books I never knew I needed until I stumbled on them, aimlessly browsing. Books like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Jams, Jellies, and Preserves (641.852) or The Joy of Laziness (613/AXT).

I doubt “aimless browsing” is quantifiable data on Joe Matthews’s “Balanced Scorecard for Libraries.” In the end, believing in any kind of future for public libraries might be a toughie if you don’t hang out in one as often as the Gen Y’ers and I do. To get it, you may have to live it.

Which probably doesn’t include Encinitas deputy mayor James Bond, who was less than enthusiastic about the building of his community’s elegant new library, calling it a potential “dinosaur” and saying that “in ten years, nobody will be making a trip to the library. We will be looking at a PalmPilot or a computer at home.”

Or Ross Dawson, the trend forecaster paid huge sums of money by the likes of Pepsi and AT&T, who predicts the death of public libraries in 2019, along with butchers, free parking, and unfenced beaches.

Or the San Diego Library Commissioners who voted not to rebuild North Clairemont library after it had been gutted by fire in 1980.

Nineteen eighty was a rough year for the North Clairemont library. It was broken into 12 times in ten months, and during the day, patrons and staff were afraid of the gangs of teenagers who milled outside. Late one October night, the library was broken into again and this time set ablaze. The building was saved, but everything inside was destroyed or damaged.

The burned library sat for three months, a boarded-up, shut-down sign of Clairemont’s failure as a community. Insurance money was delayed. The City was noncommittal.

In December, determined to rebuild their library, Lee McComber and a group of citizens formed the Friends of North Clairemont Book Brigade. When the library commissioners voted not to rebuild, the brigade persisted and finally got a promise from the San Diego City Council for matching funds.

The brigade held book sales and neighborhood carnivals. They wrote letters to the local papers, keeping the spirit of the library alive. Finally, 11 months after the fire, North Clairemont Branch Library opened its doors, “rebuilt so attentively to original plans that at first it even had the same inadequate number of light switches,” reported the Ramona Sentinel. It took four more years of community fund-raising to replace the collections.

After almost 30 years, I couldn’t find anyone who remembered the fire or how the library had been saved. There’s no commemorative plaque at the library. Only a scrapbook history, archived in a plastic three-ring binder full of yellowed newspaper clippings and faded color photographs.

There is a saying, a kind of Mexican nursery rhyme, I learned at the library from Señora C, when she reads aloud. On the last word of a story, as the book is slowly closed, on cue together, children, grown-ups, and Señora C say cheerily, “Y colorín colorado este cuento se ha acabado.”

It means that a story may finish, but it never truly ends.

What would the book brigaders think of their library now? Of the computers and noise? Of Miss Trish? They wouldn’t blink an eye at the City’s shenanigans. One thing for sure: they’d be darned amused to find out that North Clairemont is showing a little high style in its dotage. This past March, the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) held a meeting to discuss the city’s most important, and possibly threatened, modernist buildings.

“The North Clairemont Library is among our favorites,” says Keith York, SOHO member and moderator of ModernSanDiego.com. San Diego architect Robert Platt’s design “communicates like a billboard, attracting onlookers and passersby to investigate what’s inside,” he says, singling out the unique “diamond-shaped fascia” that runs across the library’s front. According to York, the North Clairemont Branch Library is “among the few and best examples of Googie architecture” left in San Diego.

Googie?

I do some online searches but finally strike gold at the library. There I find the definitive text, Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture by Alan Hess (725.71), and learn that Googie was an architectural style born in Los Angeles, created to stop traffic and sell services.

Colorful and zany, Googie buildings were wildly popular in the 1940s to mid-1960s, in part because they symbolized the Southern California good life. They were fun buildings, projecting the “prosperity,” “optimism,” and “newness” of a time and place that looked forward, with wonder, to a bright future.

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Comments

epearcy June 19, 2008 @ 11:30 a.m.

North Clairemont is my library, too. I did not discover it until one year after moving to the area. Now, after going weekly for teh last few months, my three year old is thrilled to get a new book. He takes his Spiderman backpack and fills up on Dr. Seuss and Sesame Street. Before the library, all he wanted was DVDs and cartoons, now he is actually "reading" and loving it.

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rshimizu12 June 19, 2008 @ 4:51 p.m.

San Diego has great libraries. They are have made a lot of progress in remodeling and or building new libraries. Some of the older libraries do not have enough outlets for laptop users. For some reason the libraries seem to have the most uncomfortable chairs.

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kfmfisher June 20, 2008 @ 9:53 a.m.

Of course the city spends more money on parks and rec. I don't know why this guy would bother to write about the library. Most people could care less about having libraries at all.

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clockerbob June 20, 2008 @ 1:40 p.m.

The San Diego public library system refused service to an estimated 50,000 patrons last year. These 50,000 are visitors or locals who wanted to use a 1hr computer station but were REFUSED and informed that all computers are occupied and that they had to wait an hour or longer. Most never return. It's a hardy crew that occupies a 1 hr computer station at a public library and I'm one of them.

  The downtown central library

has a ratio of one librarian on duty for every 1hr computer station.

A modern library has a ratio of one librarian for every 30 computers. E.G. Lied library at UNLV. Bio-med at UCSD. Love library at SDSU. Copley library at USD. Encinitas library.

There is an overwhelming need to cut the staff and use the money for 1hr computer stations that would increase the libraries usages by 50,000 patrons a year at no cost to the public.

Mr. Robert J. Kachur San Diego, Calif

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joyoftexts June 21, 2008 @ 3:26 p.m.

What irony! In the middle of a terrific cover story about a branch library, we learn that a city "public senior information officer" consults with the mayor's office and then refuses to speak with the author about the Library Department and also forbids the author from talking to any library employee.
However, the "information officer" IS allowed to tell us she's an author and consults with people trying to deal with "experience fragments." Apparently, job title hypocrisy is not considered a "fragment." Who knew? The Library Department as a hotbed of closely guarded secrets? I'll never look at a branch librarian again without wondering just what she might be planning.

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nellsonic June 25, 2008 @ 11:44 a.m.

What happened to libraries as places of quiet refuge? We need such places, especially in urban environments. Most libraries now might as well be branches of a chain bookstore. Between cell phone users and librarians speaking as if they were on the floor of a factory the opportunities for peaceful reading and browsing have largely died.

If the people who run our libraries won't allow the citizens to have appropriate oversight, maybe they can at least promote an environment of courtesy and respect, or answer as to why they no longer bother.

Anders Nelson

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beernick March 2, 2009 @ 3:16 p.m.

as a former employee of the SDPL - I found a few errors in the story but I am glad that someone has taken the time to speak for the librarys -- error 1 - libriarians don't shhh anymore -- in the 11 years i worked in the system every librarian I know struggled to let the library be a place where the kids could have fun, but not too much, and people who want to study could as well-- it is a difficult balance for staffs to maintain - esspecially when they are loosing staff and hours as they have been in the last few years

error 2- donna Frys saying if they could get a one page report on the librarys -- they can -- just ask the branch manager -- they do monthly reports each month to report the statis of the library - if the city council is having problems getting these maybe they need to go and meet the library staff in their district i don't think going to 1 or 2 libraries is too much toa ask-- maybe even check out a book or dvd -- in the 11 years i worked for the system I saw maybe 2 council members who were regulars at the librarys -- the rest if they ever showed up it was only fo events they thought would get them on the news

the SDPL is one of the finest places I have ever worked and it it filled with great people who care about the service they provide-- so thank them next time your in -- because they probably just spent 20 minutes arguingwith someone over a $.25 fine -- give them a break -- they are there to help you

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