Commentary: A Library is a Sanctuary
By Susanne Pari
As a writer, and thus a life-long voracious reader and researcher, I feel compelled to take some time to offer my opinion regarding the new library project. I have been an Atherton resident for twenty years, and until this point, have not been involved in town politics because I am mostly writing and reading. While the arguments presented in this blog against a new large library in Holbrook-Palmer Park are solid and valid, I see the impending situation from a different angle, one that may not yet have been addressed, at least not fully.
A town library is a communal sanctuary for Readers. It should offer comfortable corners where readers can be transported to the worlds where books can take them and quiet areas where people can study, write, research, or simply think. It should have an elite staff of librarians who can recommend and obtain reading material, assist with research, and organize literature-related events for the community. It should be an inviting place where townspeople feel safe, relaxed, and among neighbors.
I spend a lot of time in libraries all over the world. Naturally, I visit the Menlo Park Library and Atherton Library on occasion, but less often now than in the past. Both libraries have their drawbacks; neither feel the way I believe a library should feel. A large part of this is due to the ambience of their venues. Some of it has to do with how technology has changed the way we access books, which is not to say that digital reading and internet access will make ‘the library’ obsolete; it simply means that libraries and readers need time to adjust to new technology just as they did when moving from papyrus to codex (books). But technology doesn’t seem to be the main issue yet regarding Measure F. This is about location, and surprisingly, size and placement.
Menlo Park Library, which those in favor of Measure F seem interested in mimicking, is an impersonal, often noisy, and sometimes scary place (I was once accosted and stalked there by a mentally ill homeless person, and when the police were called, they treated it like a common occurrence). The fluorescent lighting is hard on the eyes and the stacks are messy. The carrels are merely back-facing cubicles, and the reading chairs are uncomfortable. No matter, I suppose, because they are occupied only for short periods of time because to ‘settle in for a spell,’ one wouldn’t be able to visit the stacks, get a drink of water, or use the restrooms without worrying about having one’s property stolen. The children’s section is, admittedly, well-stocked, well-staffed, and well-used. Yes, it is separate from the rest of the library, as it should be. I don’t know how often it’s used by patrons as a ‘day-care station,’ but I do know that this is a problem, especially in large libraries.
Atherton Library has sadly become less and less inviting over the years. I will not pretend to understand the issues of our town’s finances, but I often wondered why our officials allowed the library to languish—worn and stained carpeting, lumpy chairs, an ugly drop-ceiling, old fluorescent lighting, a neglected patio/garden, 70s-style paint, and a poorly-designed ramp to the front door. I assumed it was because of a lack of funds that this quaint mission-style building was left untended, but it appears that this has not been the case. Now we have accumulated a huge pot for library upgrades and there is a rush to put it all in a new building, and one not even within the architecturally-pleasing old and central part of town, but in the park.
Atherton has a population of around 7000. A library serves its community, and our community is small. Why would we need a library as large as Menlo Park’s, which serves a population of nearly 33,000—five times larger? Are we trying to attract more people? And if so, why? A library is not a bookstore, not a retail operation, and certainly not a town attraction. The fact that there are dozens of libraries in the vicinity—school libraries and church libraries and university libraries—means that a large Atherton library would not be fulfilling some informational need that the community lacks. As a person who truly loves the casual and communal exchange of knowledge within a community, I would much rather have an intimate library that reflects the character and history of our town. With the funds that are available, a restoration and refurbishment of our existing library would enhance our experience as townspeople and neighbors.
A massive library like the one in Menlo Park is not only a ridiculous waste of money, but a poor use of it. Is the library for Atherton or for the entire Peninsula? Yes, Atherton Library is part of the Peninsula Library System, but the main benefit of this, to those of us who use libraries, is the access to a larger collection of books and materials. We don’t belong to PLS in order to draw a larger population to our library, which is exactly what a larger library will do. A more welcoming and intimate library will draw Athertonians to it and thus, bring Athertonians together. Most important, our funds could be used to enhance the services that our library offers by hiring more experienced staff and regular guests to give talks and teach classes or lead reading groups. These are the traits that draw patrons to a library.
The throw-away mentality of replacing everything old with something grand-spanking new and ostentatious is not only dated, but impractical and unsuitable for our environmentally-conscious modern society. It saddens me to see town planners focus their energies on the erection of a structure, as if we’re rebuilding the Royal Library of Alexandria, while ignoring the fundamental raison d’etre of a library: as a peaceful and beautiful sanctuary for learning.
Susanne Pari is an Atherton resident and the author of The Fortune Catcher. .