Libraries sure have changed a lot since I was a kid. I've been contemplating the pertinence of libraries for kids today. Do books hold the same importance for youth in an age of wireless mobile devices? Will a new generation still see large print depositories as being a necessity?
I am a bibliophile. I love the way books feel, the way they smell. Because I am a collector my tastes are often specific, sometimes esoteric. I think about books and imagine fictional worlds as realities. At times I believe that the words of authors are like those spoken to me by a good friend. Often the words found in books hold a higher meaning than those experienced in reality. I've carried books across the country with me. I've clung onto printed text while searching for meaning in my own life. Books are my world.
My passion for books is so vast, that I've often daydreamed of opening my own bookshop. It would be like the shop in the TV show Eerie Indiana. In that program, the store "The World O' Stuff" is a luncheonette that also sells a range of curiosities. The owner of the store and sole employee is an eccentric proprietor named Radford played by John Astin. He has a good relationship with the kids in the community. They like to hang out there. It's a place of community where unusual objects are discovered. It's a place that through books, ghosts are brought back to life. I loved Radford's quirky relationship with kids in this role; a sort of teenager's version of a sympathetic bartender, minus the alcohol. I see myself as a similar character. I want to be the unusual but good-hearted person who gives young people thought provoking advice told through humorous puzzles. I see this happening in a physical location where I am surrounded by relics that open up new worlds to young eyes. Eyes and hearts that are open to new experiences. At the World O' Stuff, kids are never reprimanded, the service is good, and the items are cheap but of value. This is my fantasy.
Most of my interest in books veers towards the world of realistic Young Adult fiction. This stems from spending hours on end in the public library as a teenager. I searched amongst the stacks until I found a style of book that I related to. I read cheap paperbacks found on spinner racks, attracted to the lurid, realistic and colorful paintings on covers of science-fiction and horror novels. Eventually I gravitated towards the YA bookshelves amazed to find the works of Paul Zindel and Randy Powell amongst the neon and pastel decorated shelves of what appeared to be a sickeningly saccharine member's only Babysiter's Club. YA fiction had an alluring grab to me. To discover what seemed to me to be dangerous and groundbreaking ideas in what outwardly looked like such a safe environment. My parents never complained that I spent too much time in the library. Did they realize this place was my education outside of school? Books in the library opened a new world to me and created a revolution within my mind.
Sometimes reading books from previous decades is the closest thing I'll ever have to a time machine. I like to go back in time. Perhaps in the 1970's, before the internet, it made more sense to open a brick and mortar business based around entertainment. Bookstores, for example, were less commodified at this time and while Barnes and Noble and Border's both had a reputation, they were nowhere near the conglomerates that they are today. Maybe small independent bookshops were one of your only options for discovering new and out of print titles back then. In this sense, the bookstore, like the library, were places of discovery. I close my eyes and think of myself perusing through the spinner racks and piles of paperbacks in a bookstore from 35 years ago and I am in heaven. I'm on a cloud because that was a time when YA fiction was also new. Editors were more willing to take risks, publishers were abundant and the distribution was purely through physical locations.
Today, this need is filled in large part by the internet. One can search for rare books as well as get books at a steep discount online, all in the comfort of their own home. The need for a bookstore as a place of discovery is diminished. While I love bookstores and am nostalgic for them, I find that I rarely purchase books at the ones still in existence. When I do visit a bookstore, I go with pen and paper in hand. If I see something I like, I jot down the title and then search the internet for a better price. I always find one. I hate to admit this but it's true. While I love a bookstore's charm, it just doesn't make any sense economically unless it is also operating an internet business.
In the 1990's when Borders and Barnes and Noble first became popular, people used it as a place to hang out. It brought a cafe community to suburbia. It was not just about the books. It was about the coffee and the couches. They also offered free programming such as author talks and children's storytimes. Sort of like a library where you wouldn't be shushed and you could buy stuff. This impacted the way independent bookstores ran their businesses. The idea was to make bookstores more comfortable and more personable to the community. This also changed public libraries. They became less "hush-hush" and began collecting DVDS, CDs, collecting graphic novels and getting rid of old books in order to look current.
In our digital world, I wonder how often teens buy books? I'm pretty sure the attraction is less. Would they rather have iPads? Kindles? They are probably not baited by lurid covers. For teens, this sort of cover artwork hardly exists anymore. Today, cover art for teen books are largely photos and digitally created artwork, marred by quickly outdated graphic design elements. Because of the lack of cover paintings, these books lack the collectibility appeal they once had (similar to comic books). In fact, if teens are buying any books it's most likely that they are purchasing manga. Manga still has that forbidden pulp appeal and a tinge of exploitation that makes it exciting to youth. But now, with covers that are not so different than adult bestsellers (think James Patterson), maybe the physical object loses some significance. For this new generation, perhaps it is less important to hold a physical object in hand. The internet, and electronic devices, promote a "green" mentality in this respect. Collecting can be done via files on a desktop or an APP. From a young person's perspective the mass production of books can seem to be nothing more than a waste of paper. If the same information can be accessed electronically (and more often than not for free), why not?
With this in mind, it might be that the only physical location that still remains pertinent for teens and books is the public library space. In my experience as a public librarian, I have come to the conclusion that the physical community space holds more importance than the books themselves. A library can be a physical storage place for information and researchers. But it also can offer something that the internet can not. It can be a place for real life human interaction.
In my experience working for the Boston Public Library, I saw the library as a place where hundreds of kids went after school. It offered them a place to hang out with friends and to engage in programs offered by the librarian. It offered them an environment to get free help with their homework and to interact with a Radford like proprietor (me). Like in my fantasy, the service is good, the items are FREE and hearts and eyes are opened to new experiences. There is something offered in a library that the internet, or even a bookstore lacks. Because nothing is being sold, it is the librarian's job not to be a salesperson, but to be someone who cares about the people who use and visit the library. In this sense, the library is less like an "entertainment store". Instead, a librarian's job is to offer a human service. He is closer akin to a dentist or a hair stylist. Instead of fixing teeth or cutting hair, he is providing a place to foster the imagination. Books are only the tools of the trade. This human aspect exists with or without physical copies of books.
Personally, my love for libraries comes from my experience from the books within, not the librarians. In the endless hours I spent at the public library as a teenager I don't recall ever interacting with a librarian. They always seemed unapproachable to me. I do not want to be that sort of librarian. While I was drawn in by the books, I realize that I am an exception. Not everyone has the same fascination with reading. That is why I want to be a different type of librarian. Sharing my love for books is only part of it. The active librarian uses stories and information as a tool. Books are part of this, yes. But these stories, this information, these tools need to be exercised. In Eerie Indiana, the World O' Stuff would be just another luncheonette, if it were not for the proprietor Radford. His character and collecting tastes make the store a place where kids feel at home.
My goal is to create a "World O' Stuff" where special objects and a world of discovery still exists. While just about anything can be found on the internet, there are still places where curious discoveries are still available in a public space for young mind's to discover and interact within a human face-to-face manner. And if they check out a book and become lifelong readers, even better. Libraries are not a relic of the past. In fact, they are necessary now more than ever. They may offer one of the last remaining human services offered towards youth where so much is offered for so little.
Last night I had a weird Fahrenheit 451 vision of the future. The dream took place 50 years from now. In this future, peoples attention spans are shortened, attuned to reading material only in short bits and spurts via virtual reading. Everyone is psychically plugged into this same network, an internet minus the electronic device. Literature is not burned; instead the publishing industry has collapsed in on itself. Unable to sell physical copies of books, novels are mostly distributed electronically for free. Authors, in a last attempt to make a living from their work, turn to self-publishing. They sell their books directly to a network of librarians working in public community spaces supported by public funds. People begin visiting these libraries as an escape from the virtual world. Turning off their implanted head devices, the libraries gain popularity as a getaway in the way that people escape to spas on vacations. Doctors recommend reading physical books and consulting librarians as a way to remove stress from the brain and relief from a condition known as antisocial network overload. At this point, I am 82 and retire to an exotic island. They have a great library there. I tweet all about it to my grandchildren.