Friday, December 18, 2009

A Very Large and Beautiful Building—and YouTube

When I walk into the new-to-me Salt Lake City Public Main Library I feel like I am stepping into God’s own jungle gym. 5 stories of open air rise up from the entrance, encased on each side by walkways and pillars overlooking the relatively narrow courtyard below. Bridges between each side of the column float in the distance, creating an illusion of people crawling around the rigging of an enormous, steel, 16th Century trading ship replica. Beams cross and bifurcate at degrees of deep geometric complexity. I feel awed and overwhelmed. It is beautiful to apprehend, and I indeed feel apprehensive. 

The building is on the cutting edge of urban architecture. Much has been made of Moshe Safdie’s ground-breaking accomplishment. The Salt Lake Main Library is one of the architect’s more conservative efforts, surprisingly enough. But the building boasts all of his most cherished sensibilities: stacks of blocks nestled amongst stylistic, sweeping arcs which bisect hundreds of bold angles measuring slightly-less-than right. Utahns deserve to be proud of this, yet another unique American landmark comprising the character of the Wasatch Valley.

Closer to terra firma, the more tangible themes of the building come into view. These are things I can comprehend. People of all ages and races meander past others who lounge about stylish cafe tables (which are pleasantly not attached to the floor itself). They play chess. They chat. They use their computers. They enjoy the cool air and light atmosphere. It’s like a modern-day town square somewhere in a Dutch villa, trading houses included. That is to say, the library seems to have come equipped with its own little mall. People eat ice cream cones and drink from Coca-Cola emblazoned cups. I wonder at the commercial interests which have become a primary feature to the library’s entrance hall. But then, more to my liking, a fellow can get himself a cup of coffee while he wanders the district. For the moment my fears of conflicted interests and potential corruption are overcome by the smell of steamed milk and heated chocolate. Where was I again?

Alex works at the information desk, and he’s happy to reorient me. He is of modest height, thin, young and sporting a short crop of light brown hair. He looks and sounds smart. I immediately trust him as he kindly explains the storefronts to me. Turns out that the largest shop is run by Friends of the Library. (Well I’ve always considered myself one of those.)Another kiosk simply holds bus schedules and an ATM. (I ride the bus, myself, and often need money as well.) There is even a flex-use space where community groups take turns setting up informational pseudo-businesses, like the breast-feeding cafĂ© which was in there last month. (And I love...information. Did I point out ice cream and coffee?) I can’t really argue with the commerce, even if it does push all my old-crotchety-man buttons. When I ask Alex if he remembers the studious environment of the old library, he says with feeling, “This library does not have that. Most people come in for the internet or to get out of the heat.” Something in Alex’s tone tells me he knows what I’m feeling. A kinship is shared between us. That part of me which pines for the stodgy old familiarity of academia that this branch once had finds a comrade! Then it occurs to me that this young man was probably hired because he’s so likable. He wasn’t even old enough to vote when the bond for this building came up for general election. Still bemused, but opener of mind, I decide to withhold judgment for the time being.

I was here in 1998, after all, and I did vote for this glass Mecca of the modern information age. This is the first time I’ve been inside, though. I was thrilled that the $65 million bond passed back then, but on further consideration I decided that I couldn’t really afford it. I packed up my guitar and moved to Portland just days after the election.

10 years later and I am back. After a failed run at rock and roll stardom and a brief stint as an expatriate, it is now time to do the Prodigal Son thing. Life is a series of phases, after all. It was a good time, but now I need to take advantage of mother’s wealth. Thank God someone in the family has been working this past decade. Not particularly thrilled to be back, I am at least excited about coming to see what my vote has wrought on the block that once housed a library in one corner and a jailhouse in the other.

Now here I am, thinking about the ominous capital letters on Friends of the Library and I wonder if I am supposed to buy a membership. Is there a gym and a spa in here? Look at the size of that music and movies section. The parking rate was outrageous and it is possible I have come back a little too soon. Must be a fair bit of the bond left for us to pay off. It would explain the galleria out front at least.

Another thing it might explain is the City’s general new air of tight-fistedness. For one thing, the young lady who issues me a card explains that I can no longer use my city card with the county libraries. Furthermore, I am not allowed to return city books to county branches any longer. And another thing, you only get a maximum of three renewals before you have to bring the books back. Was it always like this? I grew up in Kearns and don’t remember so many conditions. Living in South Jordan now, this all seems a bit strict. Getting into town isn’t the easiest thing to do, at least not when compared to where I have been living in Oregon.

Yes, I know. Peeve a Utahn as fast as you please using one simple step. Compare anything in the valley with its counterpart in Portland and you’ve got yourself one irritable resident of Zion. Secular and religious alike get rankled in equal measure. If I say something is better in Portland then I certainly don’t know what I’m talking about. If I claim something is actually better down here then I’m just a fool for having expected anything else. But I can’t help it. Portland is what I know.

Ask any Oregonian and she will go on at length about how they all live and breathe their books. Big, little, old and new. If it’s got at least 4 pages and a cover then it is given special status and specific inalienable rights. Nice looking buildings are fine, but no one notices the flying buttresses when her nose is anchored to the page, which is right where a good person’s ought to be. Give them a library card, a sturdy backpack, and an umbrella any day of the week. What you then have is a happy citizen.

Circulation in Portland’s Multnomah County is off the charts, with every man woman and child averaging 27 items on loan per year. This is coming from only 17 branches, mind you. Salt Lake County circulation is up by 45% this year, apparently, which is great. But with 24 branches in the area, there should be a bit more material in circulation. (Side note, don’t actually tell a county or city worker that I am combining the stats of their library systems.) Those who live in the city slash county check out 17 items per year. That’s nothing to laugh at, sure, but it seems the lion’s share of those are Beatles Anthologies and V.C. Andrews novels. (That is a person’s 

There is an old Utah adage that goes something like, “Those other guys do it wrong.” So I come by my attitude naturally. That’s not to say, however, that Salt Lake is failing. In fact, to be fair, they do many things right, as the rest of my tour proves me. After I get a feel for the Spanish Galleon inspired floor-plan of the building I head into the cargo hold to see what’s doing in the basement. This is by far the largest, most impressive children section I have ever seen. My first sight when I walk in is a large glass case holding Disney puppetry. Beyond this real-life pop-up ad I really do have to hand it to the library board. The children area is chock full of magic. There are special rooms built into the back wall where parents can read to kids who pay absolutely no attention. And who can blame them? There is the crazy cool Ice Room. There are the beams and platforms of the Mine Room. These are hidden away, hinted at by 4 foot high holes in the back wall, begging to be explored, even if you’re a 34 year old man. It’s as if the entire library basement has been plastered in joy and carpeted in imagination.

Were I the type to complain—ahem—I would only doubt the wisdom of high-speed game-computers, and the risk of losing kids therein. But I will admit that the short, hot, uncomfortable computer room is way in the back. Getting to it means passing an unusually active, real-life tortoise, an entire cast of puppets, fun art that you actually get to touch, a killer crafts room, an amazing outer courtyard, the aforementioned theme rooms, and thousands of colorful books surrounded by comfy chairs. If a kid can make it through this gauntlet of wonder without giving up his digital quest then so be it. The sad kid is already lost anyway. Get him a job at Google already. Wait, no. Microsoft. They pay better for lack of imagination.

From the basement I take the elevator all the way up to the top and work my way back down. Thus I find a fairly large collection of grown-up books, including a decent environment in which to read them. There are lots of desks and tables. Alex says, “We’re what’s called a ‘Loud Library’. There’s no place out of the noise.” But I must say the top floor is noticeably quieter than the first. I am relieved to see how much space had been saved for literature and non-fiction. An entire two floors are used just for the hard stuff. One more floor goes to paperbacks, periodicals, and nonfiction. Part of that floor is dedicated to a teen room where if adults aren’t outright prohibited, they are at least made to feel distinctly out of place amongst all the graphic novels and “Teen Only Computer” signs.

There is a really cool art gallery as well, though it’s hardly large enough to have a proper exhibition. But who cares? It’s an art gallery in the library! The view from the windows here is amazing. I find myself believing I could totally study here. There is room for academia after all. But then I think I’d rather bring a computer, plug into the network, and totally kill some zombies in real-time. This lofty, peaceful environment is nice, but look! Free internet! I’m feeling less of that initial apprehension by the minute. But there is a critic who lives in my head. His voice often drowns out the rest of the characters in there. He is currently keeping his peace, but waves a hand at me in a gesture which obviously means I have 5 minutes to wrap it up with the optimism.

Then I get to the fireplaces. The critic cannot be held back. This is one part of the building which is just silly. Each floor has a stack of fireplaces, three-deep, from floor to ceiling which are obviously supposed to add comfort and homeliness. But it’s an asymmetrical stack of fireplaces, surrounded by cold metal and glass filtering in the reflections off of a hundred drab Salt Lake City buildings. There is nothing log-cabin about it. I give Safdie, the architect, credit for trying though. After looking at his portfolio, I’m fairly sure that the poor man has a short circuit somewhere in his mind. What would register as “attraction to serenity” for most of us is where “joy of knuckle cracking” is for this man.

Around closing time I amble back down to the entryway. Just between us, I have a few of the teens’ comic books in hand. I stand amidst the shopping center and consider what I’ve seen. The building is certainly a success, being that its goal is to create a space where people can interact with all types of information, be it tactile, visual, aural or virtual. It is certainly a meeting place for, well, what have you?

The problem with having something for everyone is that there is only one thing that everyone wants: entertainment. Should it really be the library’s job to provide it? I’m not sure that equal-opportunity YouTube viewing and Sex And the City box sets is really what I wanted when I checked “Yes” on my ballot. I’m a little sad about the end result, and I’m a little ashamed that I like it all so much anyway. I suppose I don’t have a concrete problem with anything the library is doing, at least nothing I can point my finger at. I worry about circulation, yes. I worry that this is an awfully expensive way to get people out of the day’s heat and ignoring each other in their private on-line worlds. I worry about the critical evaluations made by members my community. I worry--hey look, ice cream!

No, I don’t know what the problem is specifically. But I can draw a metaphor on what it feels like. On the third floor of this very large and beautiful establishment, with a view to the old building, there is an awesome selection of antiquated maps. Even better than those, there is this large, old-timey, brown globe on a beautiful iron stand which is so big that this may in fact be where Atlas finally dropped his load before going back to the fruit bar. The globe is massive and beautiful, and you can rotate it in any direction like a god wondering what the Patagonians are up to. I turned the sphere up on its end myself, just because I could. (There’s something Jungian about that, I’m sure.) Anyway, as soon as I turned it up on end, as it was designed to do, there was an alarming drop in altitude with a sickening thunk. I quickly turned it back over I found a huge hole in the top. While not quite useless, this very large and beautiful globe had been rendered utterly superfluous through the neglect of its most basic support structure. In the end, it is not really meant to be touched any more.

But, you know, it looks good. Just don’t peer too close. Besides, there are, like, 163 computers in the facility. Every single one of them gets Google Earth.