“You’re perfect. Now change.”

A Mom, a Boy and a Library
A Mom, a Boy and a Library

Growing up my summers consisted of exactly six activities: handstands and flips in the community pool; no-handed bike rides on my navy blue ten-speed; walks to strip malls, mostly to buy cassette tapes and eat a new treat called frozen yogurt; lengthy wandering conversations with my friends during sleepovers; tv time in the triple digits; and even more time with my nose buried in a book–library books mostly–reading and rereading and reading some more. I used to walk and read, eat and read, wake up and read, and fall asleep–wait for it–reading.

I never went to summer day camp or sleep-away camp. Instead I read books that took place at camp (same thing, right?). My parents worked. My older sisters couldn’t have cared less about what I did to pass the day. And yet my summer days passed. I loved every lazy minute of the long cicada-siren days and the humid firefly-lit summer nights*.

So far, my son’s summers look a lot like mine did, minus the humidity and fireflies. His unstructured days consist of playing interspersed with grazing. Reading two books before bed (“No, three books,” says my little negotiator holding up three shaky digits, his tiny thumb working hard to keep his even tinier pinky pinned) rounds out our 13-hour days.

My little negotiator's digits.
My little negotiator’s digits.

So, even though we enjoy our unstructured summers, I totally get the scramble to fill up these long days–a/k/a The Summer Camp Bonanza–especially for families with two working parents. Summer camp is big business, especially for our community centers, but registration is limited, classes fill up fast, and it all gets so expensive. Employing full-time summer nannies is also quite pricey. And then those nannies need to fill up their charges’ day, too. This is where free public programs, like those offered by our community libraries, become invaluable.

On the first day of this summer vacation, my neighbor Micah came over, bringing his girls with him. My son was delighted. The kids across the street, Ava & Owen, ran over too. And voila! C and four friends were enjoying an impromptu playdate. Ah, summer! When Micah gathered his daughters so they could eat lunch before their family bike ride to the Pleasant Hill Library, Ava stood up excitedly and asked if she could come–she had a library book due! Micah said absolutely and told her to get permission. She quickly did. Micah would come collect Ava when it was time to go. Ava sat with me and we talked about how she fills her summer days. She told me about Girl Scout day camp. And then she mentioned the library.

“You should check out the STEAM reading program, and join it!” was the first thing she said. Then she started listing off the programs she attends regularly: Eco Studio, Lego Creators Club, Maker Monday. Before she could go into more detail, it was time for Ava to don her helmet and ride away into the blazing early-afternoon sun with her due library book.

Image from http://ccclib.org/reads/summerreading/
Image from http://ccclib.org/reads/summerreading/

My conversation with Ava got me thinking: what is summer like at the library?

In late May, Pleasant Hill Library’s Community Library Manager, Patrick Remer told me about the library’s storytime coming to the Saturday Pleasant Hill Farmers Market. On the last Saturday of the month, Patrick said he would make an appearance to host a “celebrity storytime” featuring local stars like Mayor Sue Noack. This month, I noticed that the library’s page in the Outlook (the city newsletter delivered to our mailbox every two months) is packed with summer library activities: magic and music, and creative lab events five days a week. And then there is the ever reliable events calendar on the County Library’s website. Summer at the library is as busy as a summer bee. That got me thinking even more. I asked Patrick in an email about how visitation changes over the summer and how programming responds to that change.

“There’s a simple answer and a complicated answer,” Patrick wrote. Of course there is. He explained:

Visitation is slightly lower (-2,000 per week), circulation is slightly higher (+2,000 per week), and program attendance is also higher.

When school is out, we see very few teens and tweens, but more families. Visitation is more consistent throughout the day without the major spike we see after school during the school year. Without homework, youth are using the library differently: more for pleasure reading and recreation, less as a place to wait for a ride, which is why circulation increases.

Because families have more flexibility during the summer, and their demand for free programming increases, we also offer significantly more to do. This year, for example, we have Summer Reading, weekly STEAM challenges, a pair of 6-week coding clubs, SAT prep series, etc. Conversely, some programs, like our Ingenuity Lab for homeschoolers, teen pop-up activities, and our Homework Help go on hiatus, for obvious reasons.

Ava, who happens to be a tween, corroborated Patrick’s observations when we sat down later to talk more about how she uses the Pleasant Hill Library. She said during the school year, she uses the library “a lot, probably like every other week” to check out books unavailable at her school library and to use the library’s computers (“…even though we have one at home. I just like to go there sometimes,” she admits.). And of course, she uses the library for “fun activities” during the school year.

On the other hand, Ava said she uses the library “probably like every three weeks” during the summer. “Not as much as in the school year because I am reading less, and because assignments are a big part of why I go to the library.” Throughout the summer, both Ava and her brother go to the library to participate in the “so many cool projects” going on (Ava is especially excited about the summer Maker Mondays–the pitch and tempo of her voice gave away just how much). She listed some of those she’s worked on: a small gondola, a gingerbread house, board games, and paper rockets during Maker Mondays, while at Eco Studio, she has helped patch the big library bear and made clothes for an Earth Day Fashion Show at Rogers Ranch. Sometimes, Ava said, the turnout is so heavy at the Eco Studio that there are long lines for the sewing machines.

675px-Sewingmachine04
CC BY-SA 3.0

Lego creations and sewing machines with long lines at the library? I am so feeling my age.

When I met with Patrick to record my “Library as a Metaphor” audio, he told me about how another Contra Costa County library limits its programming throughout the year so that it can pour all of its resources into its summer programming. Patrick said the turnout for the magic show on Thursday, July 7 was so impressive, it has him carefully considering what he told me earlier when he said:

Our model at Pleasant Hill is about consistent offerings. Over the years, we have found that folks prefer a reliable slate of events so they don’t have to wonder whether or not their favorite program is happening on any given day. That’s why we offer 5 storytimes, Mom’s Group, ESL, and Lego Club every week of the year.

The cold hard truth is that there is strong demand for all of these regardless of the season, which means that our programming calendar has more to do with our staffing capacity and less to do with attendance numbers. Until the math of that capacity changes (more hours/more staff/more funding) we have to be very creative about program delivery. That’s why many of our programs (Book Club, Mom’s Group, Eco Studio, ESL, Ingenuity Lab, and even Lego Club many weeks) are really driven by volunteers, and only facilitated by staff. It sounds less than ideal, but this approach has actually helped us to move toward a deeper kind of community engagement, where the library experience is shaped more completely by users, and my team works more as conveners of spontaneous learning communities.

Patrons like Ava are the beneficiaries of our library’s community engagement, on so many levels. She’s proof that these “spontaneous learning communities” are far-reaching. When I asked Ava to describe what program she would design, she answered immediately: team coding on multi-week projects. That just so happens to be one of the summer programs Patrick mentioned to me. Ava said a coding class would help kids be more creative and resourceful, and it would help prepare the next generations of learners. Then she showed me some of the coding she’s been working on.

My tween neighbor showed me some pictures she drew with code. After she told me she wants to code collaboratively with her peers at the library. Now I feel like a dinosaur.

Which reminds me: After I recorded my Metaphor piece, Patrick took me to see the gem his staff uncovered in storage. We rounded the corner and there under thick plexiglass was the original scale model created in 1960 for the current Pleasant Hill Library facility (which you, too, can see in person the next time you visit the library). We took in the unrealized details: the bubble skylights, the patio, the parking lot demarcated with islands of vegetation. We marveled at the model’s craftsmanship–how someone cut each piece from balsa wood, glued and painted it by hand. When it’s time to create the architectural model of the new Pleasant Hill Library, we laughed, it will be mocked up on a computer and “crafted” by a 3D printer. Building an architectural model is indeed one of the next steps toward our new, 21st-century facility. In my head, I imagined an old-timey Patrick yanking red suspenders from his big round belly, chortling: “Shouldn’t be long now!”

PHLModel1

PHLModel6

Photos courtesy of Pleasant Hill Library
Photos courtesy of Pleasant Hill Library

It’s a funny thing to straddle the Industrial Age and the Digital Age.

Ava, a young Pleasant Hill citizen with both feet firmly planted in the Digital Age, said she remembers using the Pleasant Hill Library all throughout her childhood. When I asked her how her summer, specifically, would be different without the library, she said, “I wouldn’t have things to do that much, I bet. I’d be finding myself just sitting there. I wouldn’t have that many books to read or a place to read when I just want a break.”

And then Ava said: “I think everybody’s life would change if libraries closed down.”

More old-timey suspender grabbing and chortling: “Girl’s right about that!”

Fortunately, I don’t think we have to worry about that anymore. Take this blurb from the July 4th New York Times article titled, “Adding Classes and Content, Resurgent Libraries Turn a Whisper Into a Roar”:

No longer repositories for books, public libraries have reinvented themselves as one-stop community centers that aim to offer something for everyone. In so doing, they are reaffirming their role as an essential part of civic life by making themselves indispensable to new generations of patrons.

The article detailed the recent influx of funding into the New York public library system and what impact that has already had on library programming, patrons, and their communities. “Far from becoming irrelevant in the digital age, libraries in New York City and around the nation are thriving: adding weekend and evening hours; hiring more librarians and staff; and expanding their catalog of classes and services to include things like job counseling, coding classes and knitting groups.”

That sounds familiar…

At the end of our talk, I asked Ava if she had heard that Pleasant Hill is building a new library. She said, “Yeah, I heard that. I don’t think it is a good idea.” I asked her why. “Because I think our library is fine. It’s kind of a dull library, but I like it. I think all the technology would change if we rebuilt a new library.”

Then she went on for a bit about how she’s not that good at using computers. I assured her–the girl who draws pictures with code–that with more practice using computers will become second nature.

She continued: “Our library is perfectly fine. It is in a great location. It’s near a lot of things. A lot of people can walk to it. I feel like our library is big enough. There’s an upstairs for grownups. There’s that one kids’ area that you can be loud in, not too loud, but loudish.”

I chimed in: “What I like about our library is that it feels really comfortable no matter what age you are.”

Ava agreed. Then, almost as an aside, she said: “The technology will change eventually. It has to change.” She paused. “Pleasant Hill Library is awesome. And I love it,” she concluded.

Have you heard the saying: “I love you. You’re perfect. Now change.”?

Change is life’s only constant. It is both exhilarating and terrifying, sometimes even simultaneously, and it temporarily displaces us. Change makes us uncomfortable. It also stirs ripples of nostalgia in us. Nostalgia is a tricky thing. It can be sweet, bittersweet or just plain bitter. It can gently push us forward with fondness or anchor us in the past. Just as I know I will miss my son’s unstructured summers as soon as next year, I also know that so many members of our community, even the young ones like Ava, will miss our plain library and feel nostalgic for its brown simplicity, its low-slung glory, and especially its endearing pancake rotunda. Imagine how much we would miss the bubble skylights had they ever made it past the 3D model!

What we won’t miss about the current space are the sharp details nostalgia likes to blur: the outdated infrastructure, the lack of electrical outlets, the severely leaking roof, the 1950s acoustics, an elevator that works when it feels like it, an HVAC system on its last breath, and missing out on the magic that happens during the library’s programs because the event space is full to overflowing.

As the 2015 Pleasant Hill Citizen of the Year and Pleasant Hill’s Library Commissioner, Katherine Bracken, put it when we got to talking about nostalgia:

Pleasant Hill Library has changed so much since 2009. In the journey from then to now, Pleasant Hill Library has become an important, vibrant, essential part of the Pleasant Hill community and people understandably fear losing that. Our community can be reassured that what has been created is not going to be lost by building a new facility. Instead, everything the library staff do, both for and with the community, in spite of the current building’s limitations, will be enhanced by a 21st-century facility.

Here’s my take: the Pleasant Hill Library building is going to change. It has to. It is up to all of us, though, to keep our new library as comfortable and accessible as we need it to be. The architectural scale model hasn’t been printed yet. We are just now in the beginning stages of envisioning our new community library. After all, it will be–like our beloved but outdated library–as Patrick put it: “the place where the community comes to see itself.” Wouldn’t it be amazing to truly love everything about what we see?

 

*video by GWMGWMGWM123 on Youtube.CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons