YA Strike Zone April 2015
Beneath the Carnegie Library Wheel
My mom, my two younger sisters, and I lived just off Santa Monica Boulevard, six blocks east of the Cahuenga Branch of the Los Angeles Public library during the 1960s and 70s. I attended elementary school just two blocks south of the library. This Carnegie library (built in 1916) was certainly in my geographic orbit.
Cahuenga Branch, Los Angeles Public, 1987
Yet, for years, and on a regular basis, I’d obliviously walk past it, bound for the five cent ice cream cones sold at the Thrifty drugstore one block further-on. I didn’t have a clue what a library was, who could go there, or even what went on in it. Nor did I ever get the sense that its grand entry staircases wanted me to know, either. So formal and imposing a building certainly stuck-out in that neighborhood of auto repair shops, gas stations, a rickety corner hot dog stand, and an immigrant family-owned grocery store.
By the time I was in junior high, though, our one bedroom duplex had long since become too cramped. Our small kitchen table was already working overtime. The only other viable table surface in our home was the small coffee table in the living room parked, as are many living room coffee tables, in front of the always-on television.
I somehow discovered, and I don’t remember how, that this fancy building offered some quiet space, clear tables, and good light so I could spread out my school stuff and study. I could just walk in and sit down.
Thus, it was the space itself more than anything else that I valued when first learning about libraries.
Between 1883 and 1929, industrialist Andrew Carnegie and his foundation funded over 1,600 similar public library buildings in the United States alone; nearly half of all public libraries by 1919. On the whole, the nation highly regards these Carnegie libraries. Communities love them for many reasons: as sentimental relics of childhoods past, as architectural “gems,” or simply because they cost too much to replace. Few communities, however, argue that they want their Carnegies preserved because they offer the best possible facilities from which to provide public service in our information age. Communities do not err in understanding this last assessment.
According to the most recent research, conducted in the early 1990s by the dean of the library school at SUNY Buffalo in New York, over 1,500 of the original 1,600-plus buildings still existed. About 911 (as of this most recent study) remain as antique libraries strenuously laboring-on, ill-fitted, even if renovated, for public service in the 21st century.
In these next several years, as we celebrate the centennial of many of the nation’s Carnegie library buildings, cultural heritage commissions continue to argue for their preservation as libraries. The National Register of Historic Places cheers and obliges.
What are the implications for young adult services when libraries and communities indulge this architectural reverence? For an adolescent, once one grows out of the children’s collection (most commonly the only space designed into Carnegies for young people of any age), there is no other place to go but to the adult section where the rest of the library’s holdings are shelved.
During this past century, when Carnegie libraries were constructed, entirely new categories of institutions for young adults emerged. Middle schools, high schools, and community youth centers are scattered all across the built landscape, to say nothing of how all manner of commercial interests design their environments specifically to attract this age group.
Yet, with their classically bifurcated reading rooms (one side for children, the other for adults), Carnegie buildings deny and essentially erase young adult experience physically from these public spaces. Further, high vaulted ceilings, hard floors, and bare vertical surfaces project, if not appear to amplify, every whisper and chair movement throughout the entire building–making even casual conversation problematic, to say nothing of the energetic banter of normal teen peer conviviality. And the “postural tyranny” (a term I coined to reflect a radical lack of library seating options) of standard tables and uniform chairs, could hardly deny the dynamic physical needs of young bodies better. Carnegie libraries contrast, if not antagonize, the actual aesthetic and environmental preferences of normal teenagers.
Worse yet, many of the aesthetic and environmental values established in the19th century Carnegie library legacy carry forward in spatial execution to the present day. Librarians and adult users seemingly never tire of chastising young adults about “noise” without considering building design as a rational source of the concern. Libraries continue to institute groundless rules and regulations, like “one-butt-to-a-chair,” and many other manifestations of postural tyranny.
Moreover, my own research documents how, under the best circumstances, in our newest buildings, libraries devote less than 3 percent of their total square footage to young adults, and that includes shelf space for their commonly meager and frequently poorly-maintained collections.
Thus, in over one hundred years of Carnegie library history, and despite the development of entire categories of institutions dedicated entirely to young people, libraries have gone from zero square feet devoted to young adults to not even 3 percent. Some “progress.”
But there’s a larger problem with this Carnegie building fetish. Collectively, their design and operational liabilities simply repel young people. Similar to the ways in which I was both estranged and intimidated early-on, these building have thus actively discouraged generations of young people, especially those from working-class and immigrant backgrounds, from exploring and thriving in their own libraries–preventing them from access to their cultural heritage, depriving them of the opportunity to explore information on their own and at their own pace, and deterring them from developing a lasting appreciation for the value of the institution itself.
I’m a rare and contrary example, an outlier, because, having no choice, I used the library anyhow. I was about thirteen or 1fourteen and desperate for the relative quiet and clean space to read and do homework. By then I was too old to be seen in the children’s room. One day I tentatively ventured into the adult stacks and happened upon Herman Hess’s 1906 Beneath the Wheel. I checked it out and quickly realized it was too difficult. Beneath the Wheel is a novel about a talented, intellectual boy sent away to seminary to focus completely on academics to the neglect of his social development. He grows up, however, never to “fit in” and commits suicide. I returned to Beneath the Wheel a few years later, unbothered by teacherly agendas, and this time it deeply enriched and enhanced my life.
My story with Beneath the Wheel and my neighborhood’s Carnegie library is one I tell my students to this day as an abject lesson illustrating what librarians, teachers, and parents risk in maintaining spaces that many, if not most, young adults don’t know about, don’t like, find no appeal in, and thus won’t visit. Were I not forced by material circumstances to seek the space the building offered, I doubt I’d have ever entered that library. Is that how we want to attract young adult users: out of desperation?
Expecting young people to be enticed or excited about entering these 19th century relics on terms dictated by such outdated spaces, aesthetics, and expectations is beyond reason. This is why young adults need well-designed and contemporary libraries: they need them to be enticing and accessible 21st century public spaces they want to visit and explore on their own, to inhabit with volition and independence—buildings and spaces to ignite their curiosity.
Libraries need to get out from beneath this wheel of our own making.
Anthony Bernier teaches at San Jose State’s School of Library and Information Science where he concentrates on research and teaching on the administration of equitable services with young people. A fourteen-year YA specialist librarian and administrator veteran and former chair of YALSA’s New Directions Task Force, he recently edited The Collected Wit and Wisdom of Dorothy M. Broderick, a Festschrift honoring Broderick, VOYA’s cofounder (VOYA Press, 2013). He lives in Oakland (CA) and rides a BMW R1100RT.