S&R Literature

S&R Nonfiction: “The American Library…” by Samuel Vargo

The library of the new millennium seems schizophrenic – with an array of sounds, smells and scenarios bizarre and strange; in contrast, the grand old book repository of my youth was sedate and serene. Times change. Society changes. Cities change. Today’s library system is large, expensive and is usually a big part of downtown and Any City USA’s outside burghs, hamlets and environs. There seems to be nearly as many branch libraries in most of our big cities as there are sections of the city. My home of Jacksonville, Fla., while being a major U.S. city, is actually made up of a lot of little places like Murray Hill, Paxon, Five Points, Cedar River, Ortega, Riverside, and a seeming couple of hundred other cozy little corners. It seems like each one of these little burghs of J-ville has its own branch library, too. Go back about four years: as I walked past the long pillars in front of the Eudora Welty Public Library’s front I saw how my then home of Jackson, Mississippi’s main branch public library operates after dark. Three or four homeless men were bedding down for the night in the shrubs. They were haggard, dirty and unkempt icons of an age of throngs of homeless, destitute downtowners. They are part of the new urban “human” blight the city’s Chamber of Commerce does not want to see in or around such a literary facility. In their humble, non-political life of being pariahs – individuals many would like to see denigrated to being totally invisible – their quandary is making a profound impact on today’s library and how it fits into the American socio-political fabric.

During these new-age days, it’s in vogue for the new library to look like a mural out of South Central Los Angeles. Sometimes such graffiti is being contracted by a locally distinguished artist. A fresco, friendly and frolicking, is usually the main branch’s urban look – sort of body art for the big building by way of a tattooed brick and stone covering mural. Sometimes, it is just plain old dirty street kid graffiti, though. Public Libraries on the East Coast, West Coast and in between are going to court over the homeless using the library as a living room, dining room or bedroom. Some groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union, say it’s unjust to set into place odor policies or loitering mandates. And the ACLU also deems it unlawful to set stricter guidelines for borrowing library materials in regard to the homeless. Treatment of the homeless is one of the most salient and controversial of all matters facing the American Public Library today. However, my question is a little more far-reaching and deeply rooted: I’d like to know exactly what purpose the American Public Library has in modern society.  In the first place, why is it the public library’s role to take care of homeless people? Exactly what decree or authority has deemed our public libraries as daycare centers for homeless folks? Why can’t it be the local convenient shop or deep discount store? Why can’t it be the local marina or auto plant? Even our churches don’t have the responsibility of caring for the homeless during daylight hours.

According to the Knight Ridder Tribune Business News, the tough Seattle winter of 2006-2007 has forced even the toughest homeless people into shelters. “We’ve already been open more days this season than the whole [season] last year or the year before,” said Al Poole, director of homeless intervention for Seattle’s Human Services Department. (Roe, Green)

Eastside Seattle shelters are few and they fill up rapidly during deep freeze temps. With temperatures dipping into the low teens many days, it’s out of human necessity that people get inside, and out of the cold Pacific Northwest cold. Poole said Seattle officials are asking workers at Seattle Center, Seattle public libraries and homeless day centers to “relax the rules a little bit and just be more welcoming to homeless people” seeking a warm haven during daylight hours. (Roe, Green). Accounts of this winter’s harshness echo the same concerns.  Homeless people wandering around libraries and more or less “taking up space” in them isn’t such a great fit, however. Homeless people can be disruptive, destructive and sometimes frightening; especially to children whose first impression at the library may now include a jarring memory of a Uriah Heep character (seemingly torn from the pages of David Copperfield. It’s an unsettling sight, holding hands with Mom, in the children’s book section near the water fountain).

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Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you’re going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book.

– Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th U.S. President

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I have a different view of libraries today. Although I really enjoy some of the conveniences and free perks of the modern American public library, I also feel an intellectual tip to Sophia, ancient goddess of knowledge, is amiss. As a child, I knew what that role of the local branch library had – it was for learning and becoming one of the learned. But public libraries today seem to take on so many roles. Strangely, they seem not multi-dimensional, but exhibit a stranger dilemma of having multiple personalities. Not only does the modern library have sights, but smells and sounds, too. Switch to 2003: I’m entering the Jackson/Hinds Public Library system’s H.Q. — the Eudora Welty Library on State Street, just off downtown Jackson, Miss. It’s a damp January day in the Deep South. I was living up the street a few miles northward in the Fondren District back then. I spent a good deal of time at the main library in this city of great writers. And I remember those days distinctly – the first thing I remember is catching a whiff of decaying, wet paper as I opened the front doors and entered – the odor was about the same smell as clammy, wet mush. The wet Mississippi winters were when this smell was the worst – it was usually too cold to rain, too warm to snow. What came down was very big, cold drops. Inside, the nice, comfy warmth made me forget the immediately previous environment – now, it’s probably raining cold drizzle.

In the summer, the quiet, cool and calm inside this library, named after one of Mississippi’s most celebrated serious fiction writers, almost cries out to the luxury and easy side of life, too. The library has the most comfortable chairs in all of central Mississippi. The banker and lawyer downtown would love the same seat during their workdays! Like all large flagship libraries, the Eudora Welty library is a great place to do research, read or study. Funny, though, it’s also a good place to run, play or hide from society. For those who still stroke their intellectual nerves, I guess the library’s still good for mental gymnastics, for finding an obscure plume for one’s publishing hat or for the avid reader, just having tons of great books surrounding scholarship and academic integrities in all directions, at all times. The Welty Library has an enviable collection of works by Deep South writers, particularly Mississippi writers. It also has a rare book room that celebrates The South’s great influence to the world of World Literature.

Maybe it’s just time to read the writing on the wall. In some of our major cities, the downtown library is a white elephant and has been publicly targeted in big news circles as a money pit. But any politician knows that you can’t sink too much money into an institution the public views as being as omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. The flagship library downtown is also a flagship-of-buildings.  If there’s a place that has become all things to all people, it’s today’s public library. To change with all other venues of entertainment, these once stodgy old buildings had to have bright murals on their outsides, coupled with even brighter art on the inside. They had to become one-stop shops not only for the scholar and the avid reader, but also, for the sometimes reader, the never-reading teenage freak, the computer geek and even the homeless generic. I must admit I love the modern-day public library. It’s really all things to all people but sadly, on the flip side, the intellectual side of these hallowed walls has been denigrated with a seemingly hollow homage to pop culture.

Community branch libraries have become hangouts for middle school kids in the late afternoon. The little small-town library I knew, once – decades ago – seemed to be a quiet place. A book dropping into the return shoot rang all over. Now it’s muffled by sometimes loud laughter, constant computer clicking and banjo and guitar music coming from the basement immediately below, where the daily music show is going on. . . .When I was a kid, some thin spinster wearing drab Victorian garb, a bobby bun and a permanent scowl would never be reluctant to tell the noisy brats at the center table to pipe down. And if her commands were not observed, she’d evict the guilty for the day. But today, mum’s the word at our community “book house.” A lowly aid is always reluctant to whisper “be quiet.”  What’s worse, when it comes time to order books, some community minded do-gooders want their version of the First Amendment upheld, which oftentimes equates to a book banning session.  What used to be the only building in town with real First Amendment toughness has become a whimpering wimp that is a follower, not a leader. Try to find a book with any real contemptible grit at a little branch library (except for the endeared Classics, of course). For the most part, coffee books, process-analysis how-to’s and a legion of self-help digests are shelved there. I love the assortment of DVDs, CDs and about anything and everything that is media or multimedia. . . .The library is my video store and it’s become my record mart.

Yes, if there’s a building in your town that represents the politically correct to the tee, it’s the local library.  It’s really a fun place to be, most days. And though the public computer usage can bring internet surfing for hours, the great works of Fyodor Dostoevsky are gone; and so is the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. A few of the major works of the American big three (Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald) may be shelved somewhere in the fiction section but where is a complete works collection of more contemporary greats like Tom Wolfe, John Irving and Kurt Vonnegut? How quickly does the modern public librarian forget. . . .The library boards must discuss for hours, maybe even days, the pros and cons of shelving anything that might be considered even slightly “controversial.”  I learned long ago in English Composition that anything worth its weight in words had to be controversial.

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 Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. The source of better ideas is wisdom. The surest path to wisdom is a liberal education.

– Alfred Whitney, Essays on Education

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And now back to my central thesis: what is the American Public Library of today? It seems to be a mixed bag, much like my likes and dislikes of the former book repository. It’s now a place to get a cheap, great-tasting latte, a free video just out on disk and some old Tom Petty albums I never bought in the 80s. The perks and freebies are impressive. Anyone starving for knowledge – particularly in the pop culture area – is too lazy to walk a few blocks to their local branch library.

Walk though any branch library between two and three-thirty on a fall, winter or spring day. The little book-storing facility sounds more like the halls of a junior high school in the late afternoon. At some branches, hundreds of kids gather for good times and a much needed recess period that they don’t get at junior high anymore. Or take the main branch at a half hour before closing (when the comfortably at-home homeless don’t want to be thrown out to the elements of nature’s heat or cold). The walls ring inside like urban convenient stores! The libraries I knew decades ago were so quiet they screamed. Now, I find myself wanting to scream for quiet in the same halls! I’m trying not being negative here. In fact, this article has gone through dozens of drafts. The first was nothing more than horrid condemnation of our public library system in America. But as the rejections from literary e-zines, academic journals and even some of the premier commercial mags came back in droves, my critique became less critical and more of a balanced story. I really love our libraries today – they are not just educational, but very entertaining, user friendly and more comfortable than plush living rooms! At the same time, however, I’m concerned that our future generations will not utilize these wonderful knowledge and wisdom incubators. Some of the greatest books ever written have fallen prey to the crude political and societal “upholders of decency and morality.” What’s missing is the thing that’s always made America great – a freedom of expression, of press and of belief. And the America that once was, the America that the world relied on as a stalwart and wonderful Big Brother, is all but dwarfed by the ignorance of the right-wing religious do-gooder and the leftist soccer mom from hell. Our hold on the world as an intellectual master, a seasoned teacher and overall fixer is waning. Our insistence on never settling for #2 suddenly sees our public school children intellectually falling behind some Third World and developing countries.

The library is not to blame for this downward spiraling mess, but it’s part of the affliction. My concern is if we’re looking to find a place to house the homeless during the day, we’re missing room and moneys for building the book collections and the hard-to-find research tools that were once only available at the public library. Hard-to-find books, videos, microfilm, microfiche, and rare book collections seem to be taking a secondary place to a fancy living room-style atmosphere.

Flash back to the downtown flagship book ship: Another homeless man shaves in front of the mirror, slicks back his hair and asks me for a cigarette. Today I’m sitting in the “home” flagship downtown library of Jacksonville, Fla.’s, very large library system. The Jacksonville Public Library System is a large and expensive one – with seemingly same numbers of buildings as inner-city convenience stores and gas marts.

I’m working on a computer. In front of me are some folks who are sitting on very comfortable, plush chairs staring out the large windows while it rains. It rarely rains whole days in Florida. But that day it was an all-day soaker. Some are enjoying the aesthetics of nature, sitting comfortably in a large enclave that serves as a living room. A man and his two young daughters chat on the couch. There’s a stately looking elderly gentleman who could be an overdressed homeless man or a retired millionaire. And a young woman is breastfeeding an infant quietly and discreetly in the corner. This is a comforting scene, yet its unsettling because I feel the local book repository of old has become a great place to sit and watch rain drip down very large panes of glass. The ultra-modern furniture inside is outdone only by the most avant-garde of new architecture outside.

A controversial hotbed of the creature comforts found in public libraries of today has Seattle, Wash., as its setting. The New York Times called the Seattle Central Library “Pure bling-bling: a $165 million, 11-story glass-and-metal “big rock candy mountain of a building.” (Jamieson) Seattle Post Intelligencer Columnist Robert L. Jamieson Jr., in a May 21, 2004 article, said he “hung out” with some of the homeless who frequented the library for a little while that spring. One of Jamieson’s acquaintances paused in front of a photo of a large, shiny sink in a bathroom of the new library, set to open in late May 2004. “His eyes get big,” Jamieson writes.

“You can put your feet in that sink and take soap and scrub your toes down,” the columnist reported the homeless man telling him.

“When you are homeless your feet can really stink,” the homeless man added. “There are only certain spots around town where you can get clean, where you don’t have to go to shelters and deal with perverts – or where you might pick up a foot fungus,” the homeless man said.

Then, the man was informed by Jamieson that the library will soon have a “Living Room” — a cozy area of long couches and a coffee bar.

“Living room?” the homeless man answers. “Isn’t that something?”

It’s something, all right. Jamieson’s observation: “For a man who has eyeballed homelessness the cushy new public building can make a guy feel right at home — too much so, if you ask me.”

I don’t want to marginalize the homelessness-in-America issue. It’s actually as salient a problem as the future of the American library. But I’m amazed that we’ve turned our public libraries into a dumping ground to take care of societal problems other institutions avoid; while it’s as hip, pop and slick as the newest industrial rock CD or chick lit book. Some say the library has been changing its face. I say the library of today is facing disgrace.  It’s a place of quiet, serenity and safety – a good place to take long winter naps in the cold and long summer naps in the heat. Yes, all’s very nice and cozy somewhere in back of the elevators just behind the oversized reference works and the maps. And all that is shelved and borrowed is pretty, politically correct and screened. Even public library’s computer systems censor what is deemed “obscene.” In most matters, this is synonymous with pornography but the actual act of libraries screening for “decency and morality” makes me unsettled. What happens when all that is not moral is censored? More is fed to the flames, history has shown us.  The library’s prime real estate, too, where both the urban planner and the community conscious real estate agent want it to be – downtown. Yet, businesses aren’t required to accommodate the homeless. Most businesses have some semblance of independence but when it comes to ideas, things turn to the censor and extremist. Yes, our downtown libraries have become good places for in-between times; and this means reading between the lines is not allowed. All  is perfectly clear as family conscious Wal-Mart and Arby’s.

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The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.

– Oscar Wilde

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The Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force is criticizing American public libraries for adopting punitive policies in which to punish the poverty-stricken homeless populace. At the Salt Lake City Library, a civility campaign has been set in place to “teach the homeless, children and others how to behave” according to a report by the Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force. This group also cites that in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., odor policies have been initiated which also target the homeless. Homeless people go to the library, the bus depot, malls and other public places because there aren’t other shelters for them.

In Wichita, Kansas, there is legislation pending that would make it illegal to set up temporary living quarters (like tents) on public property. But some claim it’s already all-too-easy for police to arrest homeless people for loitering, being in city parks after hours or for creating a disturbance. (Schubin)

Some people cannot help being homeless and destitute. Why should they be punished in libraries for a set of circumstances beyond their control? Why can’t society be compassionate enough to take real action to eradicate homelessness? Get to the real issue and not the problem of keeping society’s pariah populace happy, comfortable and well rested. Surely, pointing the city’s homeless is a scapegoat, but who makes the library system the responsible party for homelessness and day-care for unruly children and teenagers?

I’m no stranger to libraries. Even today, I spend a good deal of time at these wonderful places and have done so for much of my adult life. In the past few years I’ve not only written, but have published (primarily online in literary e-zines) tens of thousands of words and scores of pieces – poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and some oddball lit-art that I don’t know how to categorize or compartmentalize. Virtually all my work over the past decade has been written on public computers at public libraries in Jackson, Miss., and Jacksonville, Fla. I’ve been to a throng of libraries. Whenever I have interviewed for a job out of state or visited a strange city, I almost always spend some time at the library. Just like corporate communism and censorship, all is uniform. There’s a place for everything and everything has its place. If some weirdo writes a book that questions evolution, the place for that new book may indeed be the dumpster. The writings on the wall aren’t read like they used to be. It’s odd to see America’s great repositories of knowledge and papers becoming nothing more than cyber cafes with coffee rooms and a place to buy a snack and work on a wireless laptop. Perhaps no cappuccino and espresso bars have been carved into the walls yet, but wait a decade (or probably, even less) and the American Public Library will surely catch up with the times. It might even win the whole race.  Though poetry may be thin and research and scholarly work may be waning, there’s more than enough selection of current pulp fiction, glitzy and multicolored-covered, to give Quentin Terrantino enough satiric ammo to go at it hard with Pulp Fiction II, Pulp Fiction III, IV and V and beyond….. Most journals aren’t the journals that once dominated the library shelf. No, little is judged, “refereed” or rejected anymore with our change of research from expensive, printed academic journals to on-line e-zines and journal collections. The Internet, meantime, has a lot of the same negatives as the Wild West. It’s the easiest place to get away with slander, libel and blackmail. A hateful spouse can find a gun for hire on Craig’s List, and though some are caught in doing this, others surely must succeed in cleaning up the garbage and wreckage in their lives. Ask, Yahoo! Metacrawler, Dogpile or Google give cyber fiber of expert voices.

Expert voices?  In a day and age of utter hypocrisy, where pornography feeds the ugly bellies of Internet’ hungry advertising and commerce engines; where does truth fit in? Even self-proclaimed “defenders of truth” who fight to ban books are actually killing the real reason we have a First Amendment. New books are judged by their popularity as seen on the New York Times Bestsellers List, not by a review from the MLA. Controversial classics may not be burned or banned, but simply are not reordered after their pages are worn and these dog-eared editions go to the library book sale in the spring. Literature is being replaced by “convenient, pretty typing experiments.”  Funding for libraries is going by the wayside, too. If ideas cannot be burned or ignored, they are starved. The research tools we now find in print at the library were probably outdated ten or fifteen years ago. And while many reference directories are electronically available, where is the funding for research coming from? The Internet? The government? In a clever and cunning way, research – particularly in the humanities – is being killed with electronics and electricity.  It takes money to put out research. Finally, you’re probably saying, “what a hypocrite. A writer who is only found on the ‘Net is slamming his publisher. The ‘Net is used by the poor poet, but it’s more popular as a place to play glitzy games, build a nifty My Space page and listen to free music (but earphones must be worn at all times, thank you. And when the library’s use as a free Web surfing provider goes by the wayside, put the chains up and cover the door. Yes, it once was a grand ol’ institution, but now it has a big sign in front that reads:

CLOSED FOR GOOD.

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