On Libraries

Civilization is doomed without libraries. Okay, I may be a bit biased in this hot take: I am the son of a librarian and spent large parts of my childhood in libraries. At their best, libraries are civic monuments that show a civilization values knowledge; I am who I am because of them. But they are also of incredible value for people who share little in common with me, a rare public space with something for all of us if we know where to look. Anyone who is bored in a library isn’t trying hard enough.

I can track my progress through life in libraries. I have vague memories of the Andrew Carnegie-funded Edgerton, Wisconsin Public Library in my earliest days, its card catalogues lining the wall in the basement. After moving to Duluth, my family lived two blocks from the Lester Park branch library, a little Carnegie-style institution that shuttered a couple of years after our arrival. As a kid, the library was a frequent haunt after school, with coveted slots on the children’s department computers and occasional forced labor to prepare materials for the annual summer reading program. In Mexico City, the Universidad Iberoamericana had an ingenious floor devoted to napping on surprisingly comfortable Ikea furniture, which I used liberally on the days I had a 7 AM class.

Libraries have been cultural centers for the better part of two and a half millennia. The ancients built massive collections like the Great Library at Alexandria, a fountain of early wisdom. Thomas Jefferson’s old library, preserved in the Library of Congress (an icon in its own right), gives a more complete picture of the state of knowledge in early America than any historical reenactment. Cities like New York and Chicago have libraries that can stand alongside any museum or government building in their grandeur. Carnegie’s libraries were one of the greatest philanthropic bequests in history: an extension of opportunity to cities and towns across America (and Carnegie’s native Scotland) with few strings attached that did wonders for literacy. Those old Carnegies, now often phased out as technological needs pass them by, had a welcoming, airy feel tinged with a healthy hint of must. Georgetown’s Riggs Library, a wrought-iron wonder inside Healy Hall, is the stuff of fantasy, and many universities have similar hallowed halls. These libraries invite people in to explore, open up worlds even when other worlds are closed off to us.

Alas, libraries are not always built with the enjoyment of their users in mind, and some are instead products of the artistic vagaries of men and women (mostly men) floating up on idealistic design clouds they find far more important than the people who actually use the building. Duluth’s downtown library is Exhibit A in this trend, an unfortunate attempt to be “architecturally significant” with myriad issues for its users and employees. And, sadly, a healthy chunk of my Georgetown days were spent not in stunning Riggs but in the friendly confines of Lauinger Library, an unfortunate brutalist take on its neighbor, the Flemish Romanesque Healy Hall. The neighboring apartments, which looked like little Lau spawn, were redeemed by their superb rooftop views of the Potomac, but Lau, despite possessing that same view, offered it only from one undersized lounge on the back of the fourth floor and a few stray sought-after windows (usually lacking nearby outlets) and carrels reserved for grad students. Modern libraries can work—in Mexico City I once paid a visit to the Biblioteca Vasconcelos, a window into what Lauinger could have looked like if they’d brought the modernist theme into the interior—but they cannot forget their fundamental mission.

Lauinger was an oppressive monolith, but I built a fondness for it anyway, perhaps spurred along by Club Lau, an annual soiree that turned a third floor reading room into a sweat-caked dance party. Early on I tended to inhabit Lau Four, with its respectable views on all sides and convenient access to the global history stacks that formed the bulk of my library checkouts; some friends preferred Lau Two, with its group study spaces and coffee shop. Later, a row of bland carrels on Lau One became my haunt for reasons that no longer seem at all clear to me. If one wanted deep isolation, the Lower Level—a full three floors below the main entrance on Lau Three—offered solitude in the catacombs, except when the automatic bookcases came to life and moved of their own accord.

After I graduated from college, I worked at the Duluth Public Library for two years, a job in which I schlepped books between the branches in a van and shelved them for a while each day. For a quarter-life crisis job, it was about as cozy as it gets: likeable coworkers, little interaction with unpleasant patrons, immersion in interesting materials that occasionally distracted me, a chance to sample library employees’ contributions to the break room treat collection in each of the branches. (Librarians are marvelous bakers.) The Duluth Public Library gave me a place to get back on my feet and out of the existential muck I briefly inhabited, and inspired some side projects along the way. I’ve since become a volunteer at its annual book sale, though nowadays I am mostly just a consumer, adding volumes to my own library, whose growing size is on the list of reasons my current apartment has grown inadequate.

People who don’t spend much time in libraries can now be heard doubting the point of them in an age of instant Google and Amazon and Wikipedia. If one can just check out a book on to one’s kindle, what’s the point of these giant, government-run centers to hold the physical thing? Libraries are also often deemed non-essential: coronavirus has turned research librarians into curbside checkout clerks or even forced them into more extreme job functions; here in Duluth, half the staff has been laid off. Whether the cuts come from doubters or believers who think they have no other choice, they amount to much the same.

Allow me, then, to sing the praises of libraries. Librarians remain an underused resource for research, well-versed in digging through to find the things that are not so easily Googled. They are vital for historians, both serious and amateur, especially at the local level: there would be no histories of Duluth East hockey without the services of the Duluth Public Library, and some other libraries that chipped things in through an inter-library loan network. Their volumes will continue to provide marvelous value to those of us who don’t enjoy staring at screens all night. They have become resource centers in innumerable ways for people who have no other internet, no other connection to resources, and few public spaces that are safe, warm, and reliable. (The accommodation of these people is where those design decisions matter, and in subtle ways likely not obvious to casual patrons.) Across the country, libraries have developed creative programming, from rentable technology to seed libraries. I challenge anyone to attend a children’s storytime at Duluth’s Mount Royal branch and walk away thinking libraries are dying. The stereotype of librarians as shushing schoolmarms and utter silence applies only to small corners of them: they bring together and host community groups of all types and open up new possibilities.

And, of course, libraries remain free, a societal acknowledgment that truth and inquiry and learning matter. They are the rare public space that fosters knowledge for knowledge’s sake, create a home for both the most well-read salons and the neediest of residents. They are repositories of deep literacy, a skill that, per a lucid Adam Garfinkle essay, will be vital for any sense of a human future that values abstract thought or empathy. Preservation of such spaces is essential, and those who denigrate them are accomplices in undermining that capacity for the literacy a civilized society requires to function.


Councilor Fosle Takes a Stand: Duluth City Council Notes, 8/12/13

After a month-long recess, the Duluth City Council re-convened on Monday night in front of an unusually small crowd in the council chamber. There wasn’t a single citizen speaker, and the agenda was on the light side, but the Council still found plenty to wrangle about.

The meeting opened with city Chief Administrative Officer David Montgomery giving the council two updates. The first regarded repairs planned for the perennially out-of-service Minnesota Slip Bridge, a pedestrian walkway that has become such a financial drain that Mayor Ness recently proposed getting rid of the thing altogether as part of a larger redevelopment of the waterfront area. CAO Montgomery then gave several updates on FEMA funding for damage from the 2012 flood; over half of the funds have now been approved, though some were rejected, a small sum is going through an appeals process, and a large chunk—some $15 million in stream restoration—is still pending approval. Satisfied, the Council proceeded to approve the consent agenda unanimously, and CAO Montgomery asked them to return a resolution on street improvement to Administration.

Next up was a resolution for the purchase of three street maintenance trucks, and Councilor Fosle, who was in a combative mood all night long, voiced his displeasure. “Maybe if I keep saying this, someone will listen,” he said, griping that he had been a mechanic for thirty years and that the maintenance costs and supposed wear-and-tear on the existing city vehicles were out of hand. He figured the city either “asked for lemon vehicles” or that the Facilities Department is “trying to make money for itself.”

Council Stauber said he “appreciated Councilor Fosle’s expertise,” and also announced he would not support the measure. CAO Montgomery said the city had run comparisons to other shops and found the repair rates comparable; Councilor Krause pressed him on these numbers, but appeared to be satisfied by the response. Councilors Gardner, Hartman, and Krug expressed support and emphasized how well-informed they were, with Krug detailing her visit to the garage last year to inspect the city fleet. Councilor Fosle, while unconvinced, did agree with the other Councilors over the need to address the billing system. The resolution passed, 7-2, with Councilors Fosle and Stauber in opposition.

The next two topics of debate both involved the issuance of temporary liquor licenses to local establishments. The first was for the recently reopened Hacienda del Sol restaurant, which owes the city over $33,000 in back taxes and utility bills; Councilor Julsrud, while professing her love for Hacienda, noted that “that’s a lot of burritos,” and asked CAO Montgomery about its financial stability. CAO Montgomery lacked exact numbers but said the restaurant had been meeting deadlines for some time, and he also reassured Councilor Krause that a “tenacious” new employee was on hand to flag potentially troublesome businesses and ensure this wouldn’t happen again. Councilor Gardner pointed out that a liquor license would make it easier for Hacienda to pay back its tab, and Councilor Julsrud recommended further short extensions of the license so as to hold the restaurant accountable. The measure passed, 9-0.

The second license concerned the Flame Nightclub, which was seeking to expand its operation, though its owner had admitted to Council President Boyle that recent troubles with crime around the establishment would likely force the delay in the expansion. The police had compared the crime numbers at the Flame to other local bars at a meeting during the previous week, but Councilors Gardner, Hartman, and Julsrud did not think it was a particularly good comparison, as the Flame is a fairly unique establishment. Given the confusion, Councilors Krause and Larson said they hoped the resolution would be tabled, but Counsel advised the Council to go ahead and vote. Much grumbling and confusion followed; Councilors Gardner and Hartman suggested they approve the license anyway and give the Flame a test run to see if it had cleaned up its act, while Councilors Krug, Larson, and Krause thought it best to respect the unanimous ruling of an advisory council against the permit until the situation improved, which they were confident it would. Counsel assured Councilor Fosle that it would be easy for the Flame to re-apply, and the Councilors then voted down the license 7-2, with the votes in support coming from Councilors Gardner and Hartman.

The last contentious issue on the agenda involved a resolution supporting an assessment of the main Duluth Public Library facility. Councilor Larson led the charge, noting heavy usage and major inefficiencies in the 33-year-old building, and CAO Montgomery said the existing building is at a “tipping point” due to its serious energy inefficiencies and the evolution in library usage over the years. Councilor Krause asked where the money would come from; while CAO Montgomery’s answer was vague, Councilor Larson assured him funds had already been allocated from the 2011 Capital Fund.

Councilor Fosle was not a fan of the resolution. He noted that there are many buildings older than this one—a charge that Councilor Hartman called “unfair to say out loud” given the differences among the buildings in question—and wondered why the Council should be thinking about replacing a functional building when community centers across the city were still closed. He went on to rail against how the Council was “spending more money every time we turn around,” raising taxes and fees; “this kind of funding has to stop,” he insisted.

Several people in the room responded to his outburst. Councilor Julsrud said that the library is, effectively, a community center, and CAO Montgomery was at pains to counter Councilor Fosle’s portrayal of the city’s tax record. Councilor Gardner said the community centers and the library were not under the same umbrella; this led Councilor to Fosle to ask whether a referendum passed in the 2011 election covered both parks and libraries. CAO Montgomery answered that it only provided money for parks; his response, while technically correct, failed to note that the general fund savings from the referendum’s passage were explicitly allocated for the library. (Full disclosure: I am currently employed in a temporary position by the Duluth Public Library.) He also explained to Councilor Fosle that there was no good way to tell how many library users were Duluth residents.

Councilor Krause, in an effort to hold the middle ground, acknowledged Councilor Fosle’s worries about the community centers, and noted that their usage, when trails and youth sports are taken into account, could easily exceed that of the library. However, given that the funding for the assessment had already been budgeted, he announced his support for the resolution. It passed, 8-1, leaving Councilor Fosle to grumble during the closing remarks about how such resolutions seem to snowball far beyond their initial intent. It concluded a long night of calls for fiscal restraint from Councilor Fosle; while that voice needs to be heard, his complaints often appeared haphazard and not altogether coherent. Until he can pull together his critiques into a well-honed message, he will be unlikely to generate more than a few polite nods from the Councilors who are closest to him in their political views. Otherwise, he comes across as a loose cannon, and it requires serious effort to filter his most cogent points out from all the other noise.