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Chicago Public Library Tue Oct 29 2013

Preserving the Ritual of Research

I recently posted an article about the Chicago Library Foundation’s Junior Board—a group of 50 or so young professionals dedicated to bringing patrons between the ages of 22 and 40 back to the library. As I wrote the article, I began to wonder: the library seems so obviously advantageous and economical; why is it going under-used?

While the Junior Board, on the one hand, is motivated by the desire to create lasting relationships with potential donors, the representatives with whom I spoke are passionate in their belief that library patronage benefits both parties. Young adults, they argue, are “missing out on the many resources the library has to offer.” The library is I) an information hub, II) a haven of study, and III) an immense resource for both books and technology.

To resolve the lack of young adult patronage, one must ask: What competition does the library face in each of these categories, and what is it going to take to reintroduce it into young adult culture?

I. Information Hub

As Paul Bruton, president-elect of the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s Junior Board, mentioned in our interview, the library’s greatest competitor as an information resource is the internet. These days factual information is available in an instant, reducing research to a few swipes on a smartphone. A corporation has become a verb, and “truth” is determined by Pagerank.

True, Google offers conveniences the library cannot: global and seemingly limitless resources, all pleasantly packaged into a few keywords. However, Google’s very convenience acts as a hindrance to that self-proclaimed vastness. Because Google tailors a user’s experience with cookies, said users are rarely exposed to perspectives outside their own. Our expectations mold Google’s outcome, and therefore produce an inaccurate representation of the kind of globally equal and perspective-diverse forum that the Internet is supposed to be.

On the other hand, should one choose to opt out of default search cookies and roam the Internet frontier roadmap-free, they face other complications. The problem with the accessibility of the internet is the accessibility of the internet. With limitless information it’s difficult to know what’s reliable. This is where, Bruton points out, librarians prove so useful: “there’s this huge pile of information and some of it’s good and some of it’s bad, but the library is full of people who know. They have information experts, that’s what they do… That’s really helpful, to have somebody that can help parse out good information from bad information, and what’s identifiable from what’s not.”

While the library may not be able to compete with the convenience of Internet browsing, it does plan to harness that accessibility. Bruton informed me that, while he couldn’t reveal exact details, CPL’s website is in for a major makeover: “The expectation for the website I think is that people want something more like Amazon. They want get recommendations, they want to be able to rate things, they want to be able to write reviews, and that’s also kind of the direction that’s headed. Before too long we’re gonna see changes to the library website, and that’s all in the interest of trying to make it more relevant to people.”

This is not to say that the library offers comparable convenience. Problematic reliance on Google aside, you cannot search for a word or phrase in a book and find it without, well, searching—a search that demands one use an antiquated language of letters and numbers you have to take classes in to understand.

But there is a case to be made for the effort: stumbling for information opens the possibility of stumbling upon. Convenience limits discovery. To acquire knowledge on a physical plane is to open the possibility of new, unexpected ideas found along the way. Scanning the shelves, flipping through pages; these activities provide access to ideas we had no pre-conceived intention to find.

And when you do find that nugget of information? The tactility of the search makes it all the more gratifying. “I love the way the books look; the way they smell,” said one young adult library-goer, “It’s all about ritual. For me, getting all of my material online cheapens the ritual of research.”

II. Study-Haven

As an institution the library has long labored under the unfortunate cultural label of “stuffy,” or “solitary”. Where to go to the library has been deemed a dreary task, to “get coffee” is a social activity, as well as an intellectual one.

The prevalence of the coffeehouse is partially due to the environment; cafés tend to be warm, casual, and, obviously, full of coffee. They have long been held as cultural hubs for artists and innovators, from the Parisian coffeehouses of the 1600s to the Declaration of Independence’s first public reading at a coffeehouse in Philadelphia to the Beatnik bases of the 1960’s. The stereotypical library, on the other hand, feels more sterile; books are numbered rather than titled, and patrons are always on the verge of being shushed by some unpleasant librarian.

These details don’t so much signify as they feed myths we’ve already constructed. The library appears sterile, but it is certainly a place where ideas can and should be exchanged and discussed. CPL makes every effort to encourage that idea, through workshops, author talks, and One Book One Chicago, among many other programs meant to foster dialogue and discussion.*

All that stands in the way is our aesthetic impression—and maybe an addiction to caffeine.

When I asked fellow young adults what would draw them to the local library, more than one said that CPL should incorporate cafés into their branch buildings—much like the Starbucks-inside-a-Barnes-and-Noble model. When asked how feasible such an idea would be, Junior Board President Suraj Patel references the library’s strict no-food-or-beverage policy, but both he and Bruton say that the idea is neither impossible nor unreasonable.

III. Literature Resource

We have already touched on the convenience of the Internet when it comes to accessing literature quickly and efficiently; however, for more tactile readers, the library faces opposition here in the form of the bookstore.

Stripped down to its most basic elements, the choice should be a no-brainer: pay for a book, or borrow one for free. Either way you get to read it, and, should you want to read it again, it will be waiting for you on the library shelves.

The difference here lies in dog-eared pages, annotated margins, and worn bindings nestled on bookshelves.

The population the library has yet to tackle is ages 22 through 40; i.e. those living in the vacuum of identity that we like to call early adulthood. To buy a book is to insert another symbol of permanence and character into a rented apartment. The cultural milieu emphasizes belongings as tokens of identity: a large book collection denotes intellectuality and taste, to the point that the bookshelf has become aesthetically fetishized.

The brilliant John Waters once said, “We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t f* them.” But, upon entering a bookless apartment, I wonder, did John Waters ever peruse said Potential’s wallet for a library card?

I should mention here that what the bookstore does not offer is the technological resources that the library provides. A number of branches provide video and audio editing software, in addition to computer and internet access. Harold Washington Library’s Innovation Lab, created in conjunction with the Museum of Science and Industry, houses some truly exciting technology. Sign up to toy with laser cutters and 3-D printers in one of the lab’s many classes. (Really. I may write a follow-up article on this follow-up article just to address how cool the 3-D Printers are.)

IV. Awareness

Ultimately, increasing young adult library patronage may be as simple as improving its cultural presence; making itself known. A friend recently confessed to me that, while searching for a play, he asked a friend, “Where would I even find it?” When his friend suggested the library, he admits, “I had sort of forgotten that was an option.”

The Internet, the coffee shop, and the bookstore are not without their expenses. They are privileges. It is pivotal that knowledge remain free and accessible to the public, regardless of socioeconomic situation. Support universal access to information by joining the Junior Board Society, getting involved with the Chicago Public Library Foundation, or simply getting a library card.

*The library’s possibilities are not limited to readily available events, Junior Board President Suraj Patel notes. It is also a potential venue for whatever dialogue you want to start. If your organization is interested in holding an event open to the public at a CPL branch, contact Ruth Lednicer, Director of Marketing and Communications at the Chicago Public Library.

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