LIBRARIES AND THE REVITALIZATION OF DOWNTOWN
One thing you may not know about me is that I was raised in a family of city planners, the only non-city planner in the bunch. Indeed, there was some family speculation that I had been switched in the hospital, and that somewhere in this country, there is a family of librarians or teachers that has produced a totally unaccounted for city planner. But I am in many ways one of them -- the city planning genes run deep.
I love good cities, with vibrant downtowns, full of places where people can go on purposeful errands and still leave themselves open to the adventure of meeting new people, or running into casual acquaintances. These are towns that are full of things to look at -- store windows through which you can see displays of books, clothing, flowers, jewelry, art -- and other customers enjoying themselves. But they're also towns that appeal to our other senses, with good smells coming from ethnic restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, and flowers. They're towns that, with parks, benches on every corner, maybe sidewalk cafes, encourage people to sit down, enjoy the passing scene, and chat.
Many of us had such towns once, and allowed them to decay. People moved to suburbs, or to outskirts of town so distant that downtown was no longer convenient. Lured by shopping centers and big box stores that offered plenty of free parking and the chance to shop without being exposed to the elements, many of us started to find downtown unappealing. Downtown merchants, unable to compete, started closing their doors (in Iowa, it's been documented that within five years of a Wal-Mart store being built, nearby towns have lost 60% of their clothing stores and hardware stores). Other merchants simply moved to the outskirts or the suburbs themselves. The vacant storefronts left behind are not only unattractive, they are contagious -- shopping requires a critical mass of stores.
If city fathers and downtown merchants want to reverse this process, they need to give people a good reason to come downtown. Their downtown library is a good starting place.
The thing is that shopping can be done almost anyplace -- people rarely have loyalties to specific stores, and will tend to go where there's a sufficient quantity of stores and parking. The library, on the other hand, is a specific destination. People who would not otherwise bother to go downtown will do it in order to take kids to story hour, browse through the new books and videos, do a little research, check their e-mail on the library's computers, ask their librarians to look something up for them, or maybe attend a meeting or book discussion group. Kids will come to the library to do homework assignments and use the computers.
There is no store, no mall, no other agency, that offers all these services in one place, let alone for free. Wherever the library is, people will come. Many of the people who come are not on a time deadline -- they're free to spend time browsing, seeing what's up, maybe running into friends.
In other words, the library has brought downtown potential window shoppers, potential bookbuyers and coffee-drinkers, potential restaurant crowds.
City leaders and business owners who want to bring business back to their downtown would be well-advised to start with their library. If they've allowed it to run down, become a bit shabby or overcrowded, they should spruce it up with some remodeling, or a new addition, or even a new building altogether. They should consider putting at least a small park right beside it, where people can sit down, enjoy the flowers, leaf through the books and magazines they've checked out, maybe buy food at some nice concession stands, as they can in Bryant Park, the lovely pocket park that adjoins the New York Public Library. They could schedule festivals, concerts and other entertainment in that park.
City leaders and local banks could offer low-cost loans and preservation grants for remodeling distinctive old buildings in the vicinity, offering would-be business owners a chance to capitalize on the presence of library users by offering the kinds of services that would complement the library -- bookstores, kid-friendly recreation, art galleries, music and video stores. Good nearby bakeries and restaurants would encourage people to linger.
This isn't theory, you know. It has happened, exactly this way, in many places. The area around the New York Public Library was once a decaying, crime-ridden neighborhood. The improved environment has given rise to bookstores, art galleries and restaurants, and rents and real estate value have increased dramatically. And it all started with a commitment to build on the existing library traffic by making the park safe and attractive, a place that encourages people to sit a while and chat.
There are city leaders who have decided that libraries aren't that important anymore, not necessary in the age of the internet. And if libraries were only about information, perhaps they'd be right. But libraries are about much more than that. They're about community. They're safe places for children, where trustworthy professionals take kids' needs and interests seriously. They're gathering places for adults. They're the place where communities store their history. There are as many reasons for going to the library as there are library users.
Any town that fails to understand that is missing the unique opportunity its library gives it to make its downtown as vibrant and alive as it used to be before Wal-Mart came along.
To see how other towns have rebuilt their urban core, see the book Cities Back from the Edge, by Roberta Brandes Gratz and Norman Mintz, and study issues of Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, sample articles from which are available at http://www.nthp.org/.
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BOOK REVIEW: THE LIBRARY MEETING SURVIVAL MANUAL
George J. Soete. The Library Meeting Survival Manual Tulane Street Publications, 2000 [Box 221054, San Diego, CA 92192-1054, Toll-Free: 1-888-413-8999]. 0-9701384-0-7.
A while back I wrote a brief article called "We've GOT To Stop Meeting Like This" (http://marylaine.com/exlibris/xlib16.html) in which I complained about meetings that take too long and lead nowhere because nobody knew what the point of the meeting was in the first place. Mr. Soete's book offers valuable ideas that any organization, library or otherwise, could use to keep its meetings focused and purposeful, and leave participants knowing exactly what they're supposed to do next.
Too many meetings are wastes of time because they start with vague agendas or none at all. What help is it to know that the meeting is to discuss the issue of food in the library if we don't know what result it's supposed to lead to? Venting? A policy statement? Specific enforcement actions to be taken? How can anybody keep such a discussion on track when they don't know what the track is? Mr. Soete suggests that agendas be stated in terms of desired outcomes: "By the end of the meeting we will have a decision on..." or "By the end of the brainstorming session, we will have a great many ideas for...A task group will then..."
Many meetings go nowhere because people don't stay on topic. Mr. Soete suggests some strategies for dealing with this, including setting ground rules in advance and making sure that everybody is responsibile for checking people who introduce irrelevant topics.
He recommends a flip chart as an essential visual tool to remind people what ideas have been put forth and allow people to react to them, add to them, or organize them.
He suggests as well that each meeting end with a statement about what is to happen as a result of it: perhaps a subcommittee will be assigned to gather further information, or circulation staff members will be assigned to gather certain statistics, or other staff members will prepare publicity for new initiatives or policies.
In all, Soete recommends twelve steps for making meetings work better. I'm not convinced about the merits of all of them -- I know my former colleagues would groan at the idea of a meeting to analyze meetings. But I am sure that even if we only used three or four of these strategies, our meetings would become far more focused and useful, and people would not walk away complaining they were a waste of time.
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But contrary to the belief of some, the danger does not lie in the disappearance of the public temples of the book long ago endowed by Andrew Carnegie and other beloved capitalists. Rather, the threat now comes from capitalism itself, which in the digital age ... has set itself on a course of relentless political maneuvering to shrink the boundaries of the public domain.
Julian Dibble. "The Book Is Dead: God Save the Book." Intellectual Capital 10-28-99, http://www.intellectualcapital.com/issues/issue314/item7013.asp
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.