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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.

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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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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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