Sunday, October 28, 2007

Library Violence


I am dreaming again that I am flying. It is a late afternoon, may be fall or spring, the weather warm with promise. I am pedaling furiously through the streets where I grew up to the library. The public library was one of the few places in the city my parents did not try to keep me from visiting. I could just say the magic words: “I have a report to do,” and off I would go through the streets and avenues to the public library, situated on a small patch of asphalt behind the supermarket next to a vacant lot where the town’s only homeless person slept at night.

Libraries equaled freedom in my universe. I would start at the paperback rack near the door. I wanted novelizations of movie titles, or books that had been turned into movies. My parents did not allow me to see PG rated movies. They did not care, or even notice, if I read the book version. So my first introduction to, say, the Star Wars universe was through the novelization. I later did see the movie, but I think this is where I developed the idea that the movies were never as good as the books. It is why today, I refuse to see movie versions of my favorite reads. They never hold up to the printed versions.

After the paperback racks, I would move on to scan the shelves in the adult section for writers I had heard about from my teachers. My eighth grade teacher recommended Alistair MacLean, so I picked up Circus and The Guns of Navarone. I also grabbed a few titles by my favorite western writer, Louis L’Amour. A teacher in sixth grade suggested G.K. Chesterton. I found him in fiction and nonfiction both, but decided to read The Man Who Was Thursday, a fiction selection, first.

Then, I just browsed the aisles, up and down, like a supermarket shopper looking for bargains, or in this case, interesting covers. Often I had my fourteen-book limit within minutes. I carefully balanced the stack as I walked to the checkout counter. I took my glorious time pedaling home.

In later years, the college library was my bookstore. I would go to the first class meeting, grab the syllabus, and dart to the library to check out the books. I could not afford tuition and textbooks, so if I was quick, I could gather most of the volumes I needed and simply keep them for the semester. If I renewed my checkout in two weeks, another student would have inevitably put a hold on my books. The simplest way was just to keep them for the semester, or until I was sure I did not need them anymore. I would return them right before my records were put on hold and pay the miniscule fines. A one hundred dollar book might cost me five-fifty for the semester.

Another favorite activity during my college years was to enter the library when I had a few hours to kill and simply pick a shelf and start reading. Often I could carry this out over several visits in bouts of serial reading. In this way, I could exhaust an author or a subject, and literally, I would never run out of subjects. One day, I might read all the Paris Review interviews with writers. The next time, I might look through the portfolios of the major painters of the twentieth century.

The last time I spent an enormous amount of time in the library was more than ten years ago. My wife took some weekend graduate classes at a small college, and I would go along and spend the entire weekend in the library. The stacks were kept on lower basement floors in dank shelving that needed better lighting. I would search through the books and bring my finds to the first floor reading room, an area with floor-to-ceiling windows looking over the canyons and hills surrounding the campus. Again, I was in heaven.

On other floors of this particular library were reading rooms that were dedicated to local authors who had donated their books and papers to the library. Often, these were small rooms with huge reading tables surrounded by shelves and file cabinets. I could close the door and be undisturbed in my study for eight hours or more. It was enough to bring tears to my eyes, even now, across the years of memory.

Therefore, it was with great trepidation that amongst the numerous articles and pictures of the wildfires in the newspaper this week, I read about the growing violence in public libraries in Los Angeles. At the Mark Twain branch in south Los Angeles, six men punched and stomped a man until he was “bloody, shirtless and barely conscious,” according to the Los Angeles Times. “His blood was splattered on the wall and floor. A discarded razor blade was found nearby.”

Library officials are now in the position of asking city law enforcement for help. The Mark Twain attack was not the only crime in the library. “At the Jefferson branch, six windows were smashed this month by gang members seeking a man inside,” according to the article. “At the Exposition branch, an August shooting outside the library’s main door prevented patrons from leaving until security arrived.” The worst part of this is the impact on young people, children whose only source for books is the public library. The article talks about “a principal at a charter school [who] sent a letter to parents, urging students not to go to the Hyde Park-Miriam Matthews Public Library because children were being ‘taunted, harassed and intimidated’” by other children. Firecrackers and incendiary devices have also been used at several branches, and a man overdosed on drugs at the Central Library downtown. Now, plans are underway to beef up security at all branches.

Recently, I went to my local branch of the public library system. Monday through Thursday, the library opens between 10:00 AM and noon, and closes at 8:00 PM. Friday and Saturday, the hours are from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Sunday, the library is closed. I think the library should stay open until nine or even ten in the evening. Definitely, the place should be open on Sundays. That is the day most people have free to pursue reading.

Inside the library, I was surprised to find that computers had replaced shelving. Internet access seemed to be what patrons demanded these days in the libraries, and books were no longer a priority.

“Today’s libraries…are experiencing an increased level of tension because they have become places where people gather to use computers,” according to the Times article. The librarians say that there are not enough staff members to monitor computer use and still do traditional library activities with books. “Computers have helped fuel an explosion in library usage,” said John L. Mitchell, the author of the Times piece. He goes on to catalogue more of the recent troubles. “In the North Hollywood branch, two people were discovered having sex on the floor in the women’s restroom. At the Cahuenga branch in Hollywood, a patron said he saw a man masturbating. Patrons at the Westchester-Loyola branch said they saw a man viewing nude pictures of underage boys on the Internet. Empty syringes were found in the restroom at the Venice branch…A bench outside the Mark Twain branch was removed after it became a hangout for prostitutes.”

Clearly, libraries can be added to the list of things that are no longer what they once were. I was not impressed with my local branch. The books were outdated and in poor condition. The entire library, with the exception of the computers, seemed in need of an upgrade. However, even in the library of my youth, the resources were limited. I remember hearing that this was because of the Proposition 13 property tax initiative that cut homeowners’ taxes at the expense of city services. This is why I made the jump to college libraries and never looked back. I outgrew the public entity.

The last time I was in a college library, I was under whelmed as well. There were more books and resources, but the place was not the cleanest, and a number of student-patrons were sleeping, talking loudly, or at the least, seemed unaware of library etiquette.

I even journeyed back to that small college in the canyons where I had enjoyed so many pleasant weekend reading sojourns. The place had been completely remodeled. The reading room remained, but the smaller rooms had been demolished for one huge open floor of computers with Internet access. The stacks were now hinged shelves that collapsed against the wall. One could page through them like some kind of huge book. The lighting was still insufficient. The majority of the collection was placed in storage and could be retrieved upon request. Most students seemed to be focused on the computers, however, and several signs encouraged students to seek texts and references online.

These days, I no longer pedal my bicycle anywhere, which might account for my weight problem. As for books, I buy them now, and I have filled my house to the breaking point. Any time a nonreader comes to visit, he inevitably asks if I have read all of the books that line the walls and every available space in my home. No, I tell him. I have far more books than I will be able to read in a lifetime, and although I miss those library days, that is the way I like it.

As for the library violence, may be it is the inevitable evolution of our declining society. It is definitely a sign that American culture is moving in the wrong direction.