Be Nimble

My best friend, whose daughter is also my son’s best friend (friblings, friend siblings, we call them), has been warning me for the last three months that her family will be moving away from Pleasant Hill, soon. That the details are constantly in flux does not stave the heartache I feel deep and low in my chest. Especially when I see the kids together, like the rainy afternoon they walked hand-in-hand, umbrellas tete-a-tete, through the Pleasant Hill Library parking lot, to our cars that happened to be parked directly across from each other. What are we going to do when they aren’t a five minute drive or a quick rendezvous away? My son’s response to the possibility of his bff moving? “Ut-oh.”

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It seems to be a theme of late. My mom disappeared to Florida for some sun without warning, telling me only after she arrived. My husband and I tried to surprise our son with a trip to our favorite ice cream place, Smitten, in Lafayette only to find a boarded up storefront. After an internet search, we learned it closed three months earlier. It left us feeling, well, empty–bellies and hearts. We had to drown our sorrows in Susie Cakes instead. It just wasn’t the same.

In the food industry, it is not surprising to see places open and thriving and then suddenly shuttered. It is, in fact, commonplace, a given. We recently spent time in our old Rockridge neighborhood in Oakland and marveled at changes. As we sat at Peet’s, stuffing our faces with La Farine morning buns, I pointed to the restaurant across the street. “See that place over there?” I asked my son. “It used to be Flavors, a great Indian restaurant and it was the last place I ate before I gave birth to you.” The nostalgia in my voice made me sound my age.

The City of Pleasant Hill just announced closing the current Pleasant Hill Library as soon as August of this year to prepare the land for sale. That news got me to thinking–what would we do if our community’s civic institutions had the turnover rate of our restaurants and retail stores?

Think about it–you roll up to the Pleasant Hill City Hall to find the lake drained and the building boarded up, turtles wandering around aimlessly. Or what if you parked at the post office only to find a note on the door saying “We would like to thank you for all the support this last century. The decision to close a branch is never easy. Please retrieve your mail at the Concord location” (Sadly, that scenario does not feel so far fetched). Or what if the City contacted you to tell you, a week before your wedding, that the Community Center was scheduled for demolition tomorrow and you’d have to find another venue?

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Or the library?! Think about what you would do if you drove up to the Pleasant Hill Library and found the front doors chained shut as the neon sign, blinking closed, hung from one corner, nothing but empty beyond the vestibule. It really makes my heart hurt to even imagine it. It makes me feel like I’d be losing two best friends. Where would my son be so inspired by a Tinker Tuesday event that he will fall asleep planning to build a rubber-band propeller plane next? From what library’s shelves would he pull arm fulls of space books? Where would I feel comfortable rolling up with a collapsible wagon to return 82 books? But enough about me. What about the thousand or so people that visit our library weekly, suddenly displaced, those who need storytime, computer and internet access, guidance, or a just place to get away? And all the teens from Pleasant Hill Middle School? All. Those. Teens. Could Pleasant Hill Library patrons stand to go for any length without seeing Patrick or all of the other amazing staff and volunteers?

So, what is the answer in the library scenario (in which the reality will not appear quite so apocalyptic)? According to the March/April issue of the Outlook on its way to your mailbox, patrons will go to the temporary pop-up library at the Pleasant Hill Senior Center, attend storytime at the Pleasant Hill Teen Center, or visit another library for services in the interim period while the City builds our new library. Contra Costa County is full of beautiful libraries that can accommodate an influx of patrons at any moment. These days libraries are flexible, adaptable and dedicated to serving each and every patron that walks through the door, regardless of their home address. Libraries, and their librarians, step up to serve any community, community member, or branch, in need.

Consider that this past October, a deadly and destructive wildfire tore through the town of Paradise, CA. Miraculously, Paradise did not lose its library, but it did lose access to the building and its contents, which suffered extensive smoke damage. Other libraries in Butte County are stepping up to fill the void. An article from ALA’s magazine, American Libraries, stated:

The five other branches in the system remain operational and have become information centers, offering computers, Wi-Fi, and printers to help displaced residents contact insurance companies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and other agencies.

The ALA is also assisting the Butte County Library system with ways to preserve the Paradise Library’s archive. The Marin County Library system, some 170 miles away, is raising money for the branch.

Also in October, in Los Angeles County, the Woolsey Fire threatened Malibu and surrounding towns. The Malibu Library opened soon after the fire’s containment and served as both an access point for patrons needing the technology and bandwidth to file claims with various organization and as a vaccination clinic. The article ended with this about the Paradise branch:

[Butte County Library Director Melanie] Lightbody says that although the community is devastated, the library’s survival has meaning in the crisis: “We are more than just a library; [we are] a symbol of hope to the community and a community center, which we will be once again.”

Libraries are not only “symbols of hope and community centers”, they are also reflections of the communities themselves. Imagining “what if” scenarios can help communities (and their vital institutions) remain nimble. Imagining a sudden, or even a planned, closure of a beloved library, for instance, can open up the door to various opportunities to reconfigure library services, whether they be mobile, like bookmobiles; or virtual, either through a dedicated forums or through social media; or even temporary pop-up locations, like storefronts or a storytime van tracked on social media like popular food trucks. Imagining these “what if” scenarios can lead to a focused effort to strengthen, and leverage, community partnerships or an effort to nurture new ones. Imagining “what if” scenarios can help communities prepare for the expected and the unexpected.

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Rendering of the new library by BCJ, from https://www.ci.pleasant-hill.ca.us/1226/Library-Project

With the building of its new library, Pleasant Hill, has embarked on a journey where there will be a lot of change, flux, and uncertainty that will require some fantastic reimagining both from library staff and library patrons. We can start to prepare now for all the “what ifs” to come.

At the last Town Hall meeting in November where architects Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ) and team shared the design renderings for our new library, I watched one patron storm out mumbling, “This isn’t a library!” His despair and frustration were palpable. It sounded a little like he was losing a good friend, and there is a truth in that for everyone who has come to love our little low-fi, low-slung library over the years. We cannot escape the truth that libraries in the 21st century are changing, each and every day with each and every program, and even with each and every patron. Libraries will always connect us to information and ideas, but nowadays, it’s so much more. Libraries connect us to the riches in our communities and in each other.

It’s a given: change is life’s only constant. Things happen and things change, Pleasant Hill. And while we can’t, for the most part, control those happening and changing things, we can control how we react to them. We can welcome the changes with kindness, curiosity and maybe even a little, or a lot, of creativity. We can help each other adapt by, at the very least, being nimble.