Library Life 

A day in the stacks

It’s not that the building itself is alive, or that the books inside possess any hint of animation. But when the doors of the Missoula Public Library swing open on a Friday morning and the 20 people waiting outside pour in, something stirs.

I’m here to find out what that something is, and I start by seeking out my favorite spot, an out-of-the-way seat in the southeast corner of the building. Though the chair itself has changed, the view of sky and maple tree and parking lot on one side and row after row of books on the other hasn’t changed a bit. The smell is the same, too, but when I try to suss it out—is it dust? Disintegrating paper? Library-goers?—it refuses to yield to description. The ventilation system hums persistently, accompanied by the peripheral buzz of people wandering, searching and settling in.

It’s been nearly a decade since I counted this place as my haunt, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve lost a day. The raveling brown carpet has been replaced, as have the orange stalls in the bathrooms, for arguably more tasteful décor. Books have cycled through their life-spans. Some of the librarians—some patrons, too—I remember from years ago, only they’re older now, with more words under their belts.

For a while, I just watch. An old couple, holding hands and moving slowly, drops books in the return bin. Two mothers escort five children to the morning story reading. A handful of backpack-hauling 20-somethings head for the Internet stations to check their e-mail.

Then I get down to the business of the day: Examining the library as an evolving public space that brings people together in largely solitary pursuit. Book reviews and author profiles and events like this weekend’s Festival of the Book in Missoula tend to examine books and their authors on their own individual merits or in relation to the broader realm of literature and its subgenres. Often overlooked, though, is the larger story that’s created when these separate, smaller pieces all turn up in the same place. The library—a place that offers books free for the taking and attracts those with a taste for the written word—shows what happens when books and readers intermingle on the large scale.

000 Generalities
As any good grade-schooler knows, readers owe a debt to Melvil Dewey, the man who revolutionized library science by developing the Dewey Decimal Classification System in 1874 as a way of organizing materials in a library. (What grade schoolers may not know—but what may incite office workers to exaltation or violent cursing, depending on their jobs—is that he also invented the vertical office file.) Libraries everywhere still rely on Dewey’s system for one reason: It works.

Libraries categorize everything according to old Dewey’s logic—beginning at 000 Generalities and progressing on up to 900 Geography and History in gradations—so it would seem to follow that anything and everything to be said about the Missoula Public Library could be filed into these categories as well. I’ll try.

100 Psychology and Philosophy
Two facts seem to inform the core psychology of public libraries. First, everything’s free, which creates an atmosphere fundamentally different from that engendered by other public places—coffee shops, bookstores and gatherings like the Farmers’ Market—that draw people together on a regular basis. The fact that there’s no bottom line means librarians are free to be genuine instead of worried about hawking goods. Unlike a bookstore, where you can maybe afford one selection, the library lets you check out as many books, CDs, videotapes and magazines as you can haul home, so there’s a pervasive sense of freedom. You’re not discouraged from picking out a book about genetic engineering, even though you know you’ll only find the energy to read the first chapter. There’s nothing to lose at the library, only gain. In addition to doing away with risk, libraries also neutralize the feeling of entitlement that reigns in places where money is exchanged for services or goods. Everyone is on the same footing, and whether all your belongings are stuffed into a backpack at your feet or you arrived in a late-model Lexus has no bearing.

Secondly, anonymity and the minding of one’s own business is part of the unwritten code that everyone who comes through the doors immediately adopts. You don’t see young teenagers paging through books about puberty or puffy-eyed spouses pausing before the do-it-yourself divorce guides and somehow conclude that your shared experiences bear relating. The librarians know this, and Library Operations Manager Claire Morton says workers train themselves to remain oblivious to what people bring through the checkout line.

Linette Ivanovitch, the young-adult librarian, says the Missoula Public Library especially tries to foster the expectation of freedom for its teenage patrons. “They really need to have some independence, some trust placed in them,” she says, because parents, schools and the rest of society dole out precious little of either. For that reason, the Missoula Public Library was the first library in the state with a department especially for teens, and a computer room is reserved solely for those between 13 and 18.

The philosophy of libraries is perhaps most evident in their universal celebration of Banned Books Week, held this year from Sept. 24 to Oct. 1. Though librarians are a mellow, amiable bunch, if you want to get their backs up just broach the subject of censorship or the First Amendment. Morton says no one, in her memory, has tried to get a book pulled from the shelves of the Missoula Public Library, but the censorship debate has gone online.

Don Spritzer, a reference librarian who’s worked 29 years at the Missoula Public Library, takes a long view of the controversy, pointing out that new media have faced attempts at censorship ever since the days of cave painting.

“It’s always the same battle, only on a different battlefield,” he says, and debates about Internet filtering have heated up at the Missoula Public Library several times in the last decade, most recently in May when a library board meeting was held to address requests from some citizens for automatic filters on the library’s Internet stations to prevent the viewing of pornography.

For libraries, the issue is simple.

“Public libraries do not filter computers because of the First Amendment,” says Honore Bray, the new director of the public library who started Sept. 6.

Bray, who directed the historic Hearst Free Library in Anaconda for the last decade, says filters also present practical problems because they block “non-obscene” material. For instance, she says, a student doing a report on breast cancer would run into trouble researching on a filtered computer because the word “breast” is a no-no. The computers in the children’s department do have optional filtering for parents who choose to use it, Morton says. And in the case that patrons are made uncomfortable by what shows up on a neighboring screen at the adult computer stations, a comment to a library staff member will usually rectify the situation.

The other issue that fans a rare spark in the eyes of Missoula’s librarians is the PATRIOT Act and its provisions permitting federal authorities to obtain library patrons’ private records and then prevent library officials from telling anyone that federal agents were there, let alone what they requested and why. Libraries and the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the gag order on libraries, and on Sept. 10 a federal judge ruled that it’s unconstitutional for the government to have an automatic and permanent ban on disclosing its requests, though the matter will likely be appealed. Bray is proud to report that patrons’ records at the Missoula Public Library are secure because the circulation system tracks only what someone has checked out at any given time. After items are returned, she says, there’s nothing to trace them back to anyone.

“Librarians from the [American Library Association] on down take freedom of speech and the First Amendment very seriously,” Bray says. “If you don’t believe in that then you shouldn’t work in a library.”

200 Religion
If religion is something to which people turn for guidance, understanding and distraction, then books might as well be my religion, and the Missoula Public Library might as well be my church.

This library used to feel as familiar and comforting as sweatpants on a Sunday morning, only better, because Sundays come but once a week and the library is open every day. When I was little, I had to cajole the babysitter on weekdays or my mom on the weekends into stopping by. Later, left to my own devises, I would set up camp for a whole day. I had a major revelation in middle school when I discovered I could abandon assigned homework in favor of extra-credit book reports and end up with about the same grade if I wrote enough of them. I learned to research assignments on cheetahs or Yemen or the Revolutionary War, and I learned what it was like to keep company with the written word and those who gathered at the library to do the same.

My only period of self-exile came in sixth grade, after losing a stack of books and finding myself unable to bare my guilty soul to the librarians. I thought they—or maybe that electronic scanner at the library’s entrance—would peer right into my core and discover my sin. Months later, after finding the dusty volumes beneath my bed, I dropped them in the big red bin outside the library and felt a weight lift. Then, when the Food for Fines Program came around that year, I hoisted a heavy box of canned goods onto the library’s counter and gave the librarian a nervous grin. I was back, baby.

300 Social Science
While books may be the ties that bind at the Missoula Public Library, it’s the people who both reveal and create the distinct social world found there. At any given time, a neatly sliced cross-section of Missoula can be found on the library’s two levels. After work and school, before people head home for supper, the place buzzes. A man with bushy, pepper-colored hair sifts intently though a foot-high stack of Vogue magazines. A lawyer dressed in a gray suit and a bicycle helmet helps his daughter pick out an evening read. Teenagers sit with laptops, taking advantage of the free wireless Internet network for their videogame battles. A mother stretches out on the carpet to schedule lesson plans while her son thumbs through a picture book.

You could chalk up the culture of the library to the individual souls who hang out here. And some might argue that the only connections between those people are their various needs for free books, CDs, videos and the like. But I think there’s something more, and it goes back to the discussion above, about anonymity as part of library psychology. As I make my rounds—I’ve taken to pacing in a large, lopsided loop around the library now—most people are engrossed in whatever it is they’re doing. A few look up as I pass, often with the look of a headlight-stunned deer, revealing that my curiosity has ripped them out of some other world. I feel instantly guilty about these small invasions, though many of the disturbed quickly follow up their surprise with a short, restrained smile.

It’s this tolerance, and the gentle, quiet care that people exhibit for one another as they go about their business, that’s distinct, that feels wholly different from the atmospheres forged in other public spaces.

400 Language
A library, like language, must be learned. I remember starting out in the picture-book section in the children’s department of the library and slowly working my way east over the years, first to the chapter books, then to the young-adult paperbacks, then through the adult fiction and on into the adult nonfiction section. When I hit high school, I abandoned the downtown library for the Mansfield Library on the UM campus, with its multitude of floors and the unfathomable number of stacks on each level.

The Missoula Public Library grooms successive generations of library users by ensuring that every fifth-grade class in town gets a library tour and a crash course in the Dewey Decimal System, and that every fifth-grader walks out with a library card.

Morton says it’s an important rite of passage for children to have their own library cards and to learn to be responsible for their own items.

“We’ve given cards to brand-new babies,” she says. “I think one of the most powerful things is handing a library card to a child.”

Around 800 to 900 new library cards are issued every month, Morton says, and anyone with a Montana address can sign up. September happens to be National Library Card Signup Month, and the Missoula Public Library has a good record in this regard: Though it serves the second largest population in the state (Billings is bigger), it’s got the largest number of registered borrowers (75,000) and the highest number of borrowers per capita (68 percent).

500 Natural Science and Mathematics
Here’s some math: Of the more than 200,000 books, 486 periodicals, 5,300 audio books, 8,850 videos and 5,450 music CDs, the 75,000 Missoula Public Library card-holders check out 2,300 items on an average day.

To complicate things, the Internet, a slew of databases and two borrowing programs that allow patrons to request books from libraries around the world exponentially increase the variety.

Claire Morton, library operations manager, points to steady increases in just about every measurable aspect of the library—users, circulation, materials and employees—as evidence that the Missoula Public Library is thriving. Some public libraries around the nation are stagnating or declining in these same benchmarks, and pundits bemoan the prevalence of TV, videogames and the Internet for declines in reading by both children and adults. While the observations may be true, Missoula’s public library doesn’t mirror that tendency or even seem to take note.

“Whatever the trends are, we’re bucking them,” Morton says. “Missoula is known to be more than average as far as business goes, but not everybody’s circulation statistics continue to go up like ours do.”

Though the library is free and open to all, the money to fund it has to come from somewhere. Montana law dictates that public libraries be funded primarily by property tax dollars, and allows libraries to ask voters to dedicate additional tax monies. Missoula has a long history of funding its library generously. In 2001, voters approved the most recent levy, committing the average homeowner to about $15 each year for library operations and upkeep. After the latest levy passed, the library used the new money to open its doors on Sundays, which quickly became one of the busiest days of the week, Morton says. The current mill levy ends in June 2006, and Morton says a new one will likely be proposed for a summer election. On the wish list is a downstairs computer lab that would double the number of stations available and free up room on the upper floor. A longer-term project is a branch library, likely on the south side of town, Morton says, that would free up more space and parking.

About 3,500 new items are added to the library’s collection each month, while about 1,000 are discarded due to condition or unpopularity, so shelves fill up quickly. When the library moved into its Main Street location in 1974, there were about 100,000 books, Reference Librarian Vaun Stevens says; today, with more than 200,000, the building is busting at the seams.

“Patrons might find it’s harder to pull books off shelves because they’re packed so tightly,” Morton says.

600 Technology
The Missoula Public Library has worked hard to keep pace with the Information Age. Recognizing that people were increasingly going online for communication, research and pleasure, the library began offering free Internet access in 1997. Now the 10 computer stations with free high-speed access are perpetually busy.

“A group of gentlemen used to line up for the newspaper each morning,” says Rita Squires, the children’s library specialist. “Now people line up for the Internet.”

The library has responded to that shift by investing more money in computers and online resources that can be accessed remotely as well as on site. In fact, Morton says, 2005 was the first year that a portion of the $290,000 materials budget was allocated solely for online resources. “We’re in a trial period of adding new e-resources,” she says.

The ability to access the bulk of the library’s online resources with just a library card means the tracking of library use has had to adjust, and it’s becoming increasing popular for users to take care of business without showing up in person.

“The fact that people can do research from home in their jammies appeals to them,” Bray says.

This doesn’t mean that the library is moving from the real world into the virtual one. Rather, Morton says, electronic resources are used to augment printed resources. For example, the Infotrac database with more than a million magazine and journal articles would be too costly for Missoula to obtain in hard copy, let alone squeeze between cramped walls. Encyclopedia sets, by the time they’re printed and put on the shelves, contain information that’s five years old, so electronic versions make more sense.

700 Arts/ 800 Literature
The cycling of literature through the library is an art unto itself. Each staff member is assigned to take charge of a section and attend to the task of filling it out with new selections and regularly weeding the painfully unpopular or damaged titles. Spritzer, who’s in charge of the adult nonfiction, says that’s his favorite part of the job because it’s so much fun to pore over the catalogues in search of new materials, and he loves picking out new books for Missoula’s readers. The process is one of constant evolution, and that means there’s always room for improvement and refinement of the collection. And at a library like Missoula’s, with a decent budget and a manageable number of patrons, one or two requests from library users for a title will typically be honored, Spritzer says.

Bestsellers almost always make the cut, and popular books like the Harry Potter series show up in packs of 20 or 30. That doesn’t mean, though, that a title has to be popular to stick around. While checkout records are used as a measure to some extent, certain books will be kept no matter how many years they go seemingly unnoticed.

“True classics will sometimes sit there ages until some school teacher assigns them and then everyone wants a copy,” Spritzer says.

On the library’s lower level, an odd and wonderful shrine to the free exchange of information draws lookers and sifters and sorters of all ages. Two long tables are piled with magazines donated by Missoula’s magazine hoarders, judging by the boxes of old, obscure titles that show up each day. While you can find last month’s Newsweek or last year’s New Yorker if you’re lucky, you can also take home a 1989 National Enquirer, a 1987 holiday edition of Travel magazine and a 2005 issue of Black Enterprise: Your Ultimate Guide to Financial Empowerment. Not entirely surprisingly, these titles tend to stick around.

Next to the magazines, a 3-foot-square table is packed with free books at the beginning of the day. Most people stop and have at least a cursory look at what it has to offer, and by day’s end, only steamy romance novels with bruised bindings and uninspiring selections like Growing Up Free: Raising Your Child in the ’80s and Determining Faculty Effectiveness remain. Tomorrow another crop will be planted and harvested.

900 Geography and History
Vaun Stevens, head reference librarian, has seen a lot of changes in her 35 years at the library. Just-released bestsellers have become classics, and Nixon led inexorably to Bush. “I’ve helped people as children, and now I’m helping their children,” she says with a wry smile. “It’s spooky.”

When Stevens was hired as the children’s librarian in 1970, it was housed in the Carnegie Library Building, now the Missoula Art Museum. The first library in Missoula, which required users to pay a fee, had been set up in the post office a century before, in 1870. Missoula’s first free public library wasn’t founded until 1893, nearly 30 years after the state’s first public library was founded in Helena in 1868.

The great move of 1974, of which Stevens was in charge, entailed two weeks of marking, moving and reorganizing 100,000 books into the Main Street building.

One evolution Stevens has noticed since then is the gradual amplification of sound in the library. People have gradually and collectively raised their voices from a whisper to relatively normal tones, she says. She isn’t sure exactly when or why—it just kind of happened.

The biggest change, though, was the transition from the paper card catalog to the electronic version that’s used today. Though the computer version is more efficient, and though it tells you whether what you’re seeking is on the shelves, there was something about the old version that the new one can’t match. Her eyes light up when she talks about it.

“There are times when I miss the old card catalog,” Stevens says, tabbing through an imaginary card catalog with her fingers in the air. “I miss the serendipity of it. [Now] you don’t necessarily find that odd, little book you didn’t know about.”

The Dewey Decimal System may be king when it comes to library organization—and its categories generally cover the bases in terms of the story of the Missoula Public Library itself—but in the end, it’s just an organizational tool, unable to capture the whole essence of the library. Just as authors might bemoan their classification into one of Dewey’s categories when they clearly belong in a multitude of groupings, certain aspects of library life lie outside classifiable boundaries. I think it’s the people, and their unchoreographed interactions within the space they share together with the books, that generate this resonance that refuses to be distilled into words.

In the morning, as I watched the early birds fan out around the library, I felt something stirring. And now, 15 minutes before the library closes, I get the same sense.

Fifteen minutes before closing time, a chime comes over the intercom, gently pulling people back into the outside world. Half the lights flick off, and people begin to stretch in their seats. Now they move down the aisles more quickly, piling another title onto their stacks. A line forms at the circulation desk, and as the assistants shift into speed mode, the beeping of the book scanner generates the first urgent sound in hours.

At five minutes ’til closing, another reminder sounds over the intercom, and the air circulation system shuts down, leaving behind a conspicuous void; the building’s stopped breathing, I think. Stragglers stand and yawn and heave backpacks onto their shoulders before heading for the door. I feel suddenly like I’m alone in a hushed forest, a forest that’s seen the inside of a paper mill and reemerged as the written word. The silence of the stacks swells.

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

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