New chapter same story: the lasting appeal of libraries

In front of the long glass windows sits a table of high school students finishing up their homework. The girls are wearing long plaid skirts; they have their short hair curled up on their shoulders and tall white socks pulled above their sneakers. This photo (pictured below) was taken circa 1958. These sophomores represent a large percent of their classmates who also sit in their school library to read, study and prepare for tests. Across the room stands the librarian, overseeing her space. Besides a few murmurs coming from the back of the room, the library is silent.

Sitting in the library in 1958, Redwood students utilize the space to study and finish homework assignments. Today, libraries fulfill a similar purpose, while also fostering social interaction. Photo courtesy of Redwood Archives.

Flash forward 60 years. Students hustle in with their backpacks, grab a seat at a table and take out their MacBook Airs to rapidly finish an essay, while others crowd around the nearby printers. Some students lounge on the couches and take a break from their hectic schedules, but there is still a sense of productiveness and a purpose present in the library.

Regardless of the time period, libraries have provided society with vital resources and information, but also have served another, equally important purpose of building community. Since 1958, virtually every aspect of people’s lives has changed, from jobs to advancements in technology. Why, then, have libraries endured?

According to Alicia Bell, the children’s librarian from the Belvedere Tiburon library, libraries are still around because they’ve always been a place of learning.

“The nature of the information and how people get that information has changed. But [a library] has always been the place where people go to find things out, to read about different lives, different cultures and to help them along with their education,” Bell said.

Speaking to a child, Tiburon Belvedere librarian Alicia Bell demonstrates her 20 years of experience. Photo by Melissa Block.

Bell has worked in the Tiburon library for the past 20 years, but grew up with libraries always being an important space for her.

“Even in high school, I was shelving books as an afterschool job, and I decided to stay. I never left,” Bell said.

According to the teen and children services librarian at the Corte Madera Library, Sarah Butts, a library has an important role in serving the community, while also creating a space for members to learn and develop. Butts said she believes that libraries have remained consistent as times change, but notices some expansion has taken place.

“The biggest change in the public library, for people in youth services, is that we now provide not just story time, but all different experiences,” Butts said. “Providing information has evolved into not just giving kids help with their homework and research, but now we are providing them with experiences that they may not have had access to or thought they’d be interested in.”

According to Butts, roughly 1,000 people come into their library each day for a variety of purposes, so creating a communal space is crucial. The Corte Madera library has worked to engage members from all over the community by offering a variety of programs, according to Butts.

“We want everyone to see themselves and for kids to figure out who they are. And again that’s why we’ve been into programming, giving people a little taste of all sorts of things,” Butts said. “We've done circuitry, coding, sewing, cooking, photography, 3D printing, all these things that you may not be able to experience unless you stroll in and try it here.”

Butts’ staff and librarians from all over Marin work towards accommodating people in different ways. For instance, the Corte Madera Library works to ease the stress of finals on Redwood students.

“One of the things we do for Redwood students is to stay open later for finals, because that’s one thing that this particular community benefits from,” Butts said.

Butts said she believes that each public library has a purpose to serve in their community, depending on the needs of its citizens. For instance, in some libraries in Oakland, they serve hot lunches to students that cannot afford a lunch each day. According to a Pew Research Center study, 76 percent of Americans say that libraries provide the necessary service to their community. Perhaps this is why libraries have been such an approachable space, as they support community members.

A Pew Research Center report from December of 2013 showed that 95 percent of Americans aged 16 and older agree that the materials and resources available at public libraries play an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed.

For the Redwood library in particular, its purpose is clear. Redwood’s librarian for the past five years, Adriana Perez, explained that the library serves as a place to support the curriculum of classes, to advance information literacy and to work with the staff and community to promote reading for pleasure. While it accomplishes these goals, it goes above and beyond, providing a unique place with its own personality that is vital to students, according to Perez.

“There really isn’t a place for kids to hang out here at Redwood. There isn’t a student center, or a union building or lounge. I mean the library is really the only place for kids to come and decompress,” Perez said.

Students sit in the Redwood library socializing at the tables or sitting on the couches after school. Photos by Melissa Block.

Local librarians made it clear that the myth of librarians “shushing” its members is clearly false. Libraries have become a much more social space, where community members have meetings and interact with each other, perhaps causing the noise level to change.

“There’s a lot of people who are going to want a traditional library, and they may not find that here,” Perez said.

Senior Miles Aubry, who was a library Teacher’s Assistant last year, noticed the various ways students utilized the space.

“It shows how even though times are changing and books may be fading away, learning will be persistent,” Aubry said.

There are several spaces in the Redwood library for students to print and work on computers. Photos by Melissa Block.

According to Bell, many people also go to the library because of the fact that it remains one of the spaces for students that is free of charge.

“Libraries are one of the last free spaces where people are expected to come together and where resources are free. Bookstores you’ve got to pay for [and] there are some private libraries where you have to pay for a membership, so it’s important where there is a space that’s an equalizer,” Bell said. “It doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve paid a membership fee, and it

doesn’t matter whether or not you can afford the books. Information should be free.”

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