Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Libraries as the new town halls (and implications for the Astrodome)

I just came across this post (no permalink) from Otis White's Urban Notebook at Governing.com, and I think it's a perfect compliment to my post last week on converting the Astrodome into a community dome for meetings, lectures, festivals, and, well, maybe a library branch with actual books too. If St. Louis County can support 6,000 meetings/year (about 18 each day of the year), how many do you think Harris County could support at 3.5 times the size? Sure, most of those make more sense at their local branch, but I'm sure plenty of them could benefit from larger meetings and more "critical mass" at a venue like the dome.

Who Needs Books?
Meet Me at the Library

by Otis White

If you were worried about the future of libraries, relax. In many places, these are boom times for library construction. Just one thing, though: Don’t expect to find many books in these new buildings.

Background: A few years ago, there was great cause for concern about libraries. Once a grim but necessary gathering place for high school students with term papers, most students today can find more information online than at the best-stocked central library. And books are so cheap, relative to household income, that middle-class homes overflow with reading materials. Given this, why do we need public libraries?

Answer: for meetings. Take St. Louis, where thousands of groups use libraries for meetings and lectures. Why? Meeting rooms are cheap (or, in some cases, free), some come with audio-visual equipment and, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out recently, most people know where the local library is located. “We don’t go out and recruit groups,” a librarian told the newspaper. “They come to us.”

The numbers are amazing. St. Louis County libraries host about 6,000 meetings a year, the city libraries about 4,200. Suburban St. Charles libraries host 1,300 a year and the Edwardsville public library, with one building, hosted 324 meetings last year — “one for nearly every day of the year,” the Post-Dispatch noted.

So who are all these groups? When the Post-Dispatch checked out the libraries, it found mystery writers at one branch, kids learning yo-yo tricks at another. The Eggart Guild of Greater St. Louis was at one library practicing the delicate art of egg painting, and the Adult Fans of Lego were, well, playing with Legos. Members of the Mountain Lake Hunting and Fishing League were getting together to talk about the ones that got away. The club used to meet at a restaurant, its treasurer told the newspaper, “but [we] got bumped by a funeral and wanted something dependable.”

Footnote: Who else likes libraries? Politicians. In Georgia, suburban lawmakers are larding the state budget with appropriations for libraries in their towns. As one told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Libraries in our area are like the new town halls, town squares. In certain districts, libraries are like community centers and civic centers used to be. When we do legislative town hall meetings, for the most part, we do them at libraries.” Ironically, while spending on library buildings is up in Georgia, per-capita spending on books and maintenance is way down. Then again, books don’t vote.

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