Children's room at the Durham County Library in Durham, North Carolina

Children’s room at the Durham County Library in Durham, North Carolina

Durham desperately needs a new library facility. But we must preserve the library spirit we already have.

Let me explain.

I started using the Main Library as a new mother. Every Saturday, I’d leave with a bag of picture books to supplement the ones at home. I quickly learned not to check out puzzles, since key pieces always seemed to vanish at home. We’d regularly attend story hour or research school projects and vacation destinations.

The library hooked me by offering online holds. These days, if I read about an interesting book or get a friend’s recommendation, I can place a hold through the website and swing by to pick up my book when it lands on the reserve shelf. Whoever does the library book purchasing is amazing. Rarely has a book I want, even a new release, not been available. I read widely – science fiction, biography, young adult, non-fiction, how-to. Sometimes, the library is like the Hogwarts “room of requirement,” where items magically appear just when you need them.

Sometimes, the books I get are very well-loved. Robin Hobb’s fantasy “Fool’s Assassin” came apart as I turned the pages, seemingly exhausted by so many readers. Some books reveal that they were once part of a beach vacation, the covers faded from sun and still gritty with sand. I’m not one for clothing discovered at thrift stores, but I love knowing that the book in my hands has enriched the life of others. We’re a kind of secret society of story, held together by our library.

Among our members are the homeless people who show up when the Main Library opens and leave at closing. The library is safe and dry, cool in summer and warm in winter. It’s also a haven where they can immerse themselves in story or catch up on news. Like our schools and police, libraries are called upon today to provide services unthinkable even a decade ago. It’s not fair, but the staff and security seem uniformly patient and willing to go the extra mile to welcome all.

But as anyone who regularly visits the Main Library knows, the physical building is a wreck.

While the structure is sound, the interior is worn and outdated. The carpets are badly stained. The lights in the Main Library’s common room gray the skin of the healthiest patron. The teen room is too small for the kids who read, do homework or use the computers there. At a time when video games and social media consume the young, we need spaces to lure kids into the world of knowledge and books.

Durham is booming, underscoring as never before the need to think big. A visionary facility could draw vitality east, creating a welcoming, accessible public space. Imagine a facility like Charlotte’s ImaginOn, a children’s library, with a soaring ceiling protecting lively, bright spaces that include a theater and coffee shop. Or the McAllen, Texas library, a former Wal-Mart that in 2011 opened with 123,000 square feet of books, computers and workspace. That’s almost triple the size of their former space.

McAllen, Texas, Library

McAllen, Texas, Library

In addition to dedicated teen and children’s areas, the McAllen Library has a cafe, auditorium, art gallery and used book store. The building is madly popular. Director Kate Horan told Slate Magazine that new registrations and book loans are through the roof. “We used to be really busy on Sunday afternoons,” she said. “Now, every day is a Sunday afternoon.”

The new thinking about libraries assumes they must have more than books. I agree. Imagine a tool and seed library or a room dedicated to seniors. How about a services area for the homeless, with visiting doctors, dentists and services reps? A demonstration garden outside or a library with a theater able to mount productions, screen films and record podcasts?

The Main Library is scheduled to close in May 2017 for renovations. But I’m afraid that the current plans are more about carpets than vision. Our library was the first free, tax-supported library in the state. We need to think big about what a new library could mean for all of our citizens, especially the youngest ones. The teen area, for example, is miniscule in the current renovation plans, a real missed opportunity. There’s no recognition of seniors, prime users of the space.

I can already hear the country commissioners moaning. Money is tight. There are demands for affordable housing, infrastructure, schools, all worthy.

But don’t forget the library. The Main Library provides a unique and vital service we desperately need. From what I can see, Durham dwellers truly love their books as well as the community we’ve built and continue to foster. Like the ballpark, DPAC and American Tobacco, it’s a place all of us meet and interact. We need new carpets, sure, but also a space that reflects us at our best.

Published in the Durham News on August 28, 2016.