The Public Library: Antidote to Everyday American Banality

“The public library is one of the only spaces where people can spend all day without being expected to purchase something.”

– Sonoma County librarian Terra Emerson

Tickets for the annual “Literary Lions” black-tie event that takes place this year on November 4th at the 42nd Street Library in New York—the capital of capital— start at $1,500. They go up as high as $150,000. The rock-bottom tickets are already sold out. There are still $5,000 and $25,000 tickets. That’s New York, where libraries bear the names of wealthy benefactors such as Stephen Schwartzman, whose personal fortune is estimated at $12.4 billion. Only the wealthy can afford to attend the annual Literary Lions event that has, in the past, honored Margaret Atwood, Nelson Mandela, Steve Martin, Martin Scorsese, Zadie Smith, Gloria Steinem and Oprah Winfrey.

In the U.S., libraries have long been contested territories, and especially ever since the Gilded Age in the late nineteenth-century. Andrew Carnegie of Carnegie Library fame was a major player. After slashing the wages of industrial workers, plus a record of union busting with help from the Pennsylvania militia and the Pinkerton Detective Agency, the Gilded Age’s tycoon, he poured some of the millions he had made in railroads and steel into the construction of thousands of libraries. Perhaps he wanted to clear his conscience.

If workers read, it was widely assumed, they would be less likely to join unions and go on strike. In the Gilded Age of the 21st-century, the public library does what no other institution can do:  socialize, homogenize and Americanize the masses. The further away from Washington, D.C. and Wall Street, and especially in California, the more the library helps to educate the illiterate, the immigrant and the underprivileged who seek to survive in an increasingly polarized society divided along lines defined by ethnicity, gender and class. While the public library isn’t an institution by and for the working class, it certain can and does help working class families in dozens of ways. Indeed, there’s a widespread belief that libraries in California are the best social entities that government has to offer its citizens.

When it comes to resources, no library in the U.S. can hold a candle to the New York Public, with its statues of lions at the front entrance on Fifth Avenue. In fact, there’s a continental divide between the 42nd Street library in Manhattan and the public libraries in Sonoma County where I live and work. Sonoma libraries are in large measure supported by tax dollars. There are no black-tie events, though Sonoma millionaires like Sandy Weill, the former Citi-bankster, would probably love to launch one and host it. The concert hall at the music center on the campus of Sonoma State University already bears the Weill name.

I recently spent a week roaming around local libraries, talking to librarians, readers, teachers and writers. I have come away with a new appreciation for the library as a cultural institution that provides a foundation for a democratic society, even as millionaires and billionaires throw money around and aim to undermine democracy..

Sonoma County libraries offer digital services, ebooks, eaudiobooks, streaming movies, language learning programs, reference databases, magic shows, story times for children, trivia nights, live music for all ages, writing workshops for teens, and help maximizing social security benefits for adults.

Two cheers for local libraries and two cheers more for grass roots democracy.

Bookstores in northern California—with the notable exception of Book Passage in Corte Madera—don’t have many in-house events these days. But local libraries have worked wonders for local authors— one of the many good reasons to celebrate National Library Week, April 7-13.

Clare O’Brien, who has been a librarian in Sonoma County for 22 years, has watched with a sense of delight, as young readers have grown into middle-aged, and into elderly readers.

“The public library is often the entrance to the big world beyond the family,” O’Brien says. “Reading books brings people together and instills a sense of empathy for others.”

Indeed, it’s way cool to be empathetic at libraries.

O’Brien, who is always reading a book, has just finished, for the first time, Pearl Buck’s 1931 novel The Good Earth, which encouraged Americans to empathize with the Chinese in China.

“It moved me deeply,” she says. She adds, “It’s essential to sit down together with one, share stories, make eye contact and be comfortable conversing about books and life. The library provides a near-perfect setting to do that.”

Readers like O’Brien are everywhere in Sonoma and they’re growing in numbers.

Another librarian, Nancy Kleban says. “People are reading a lot. They’re reading more than ever before.”

In part, that’s a response to the horrors on the news, the cultural wasteland on TV and the callousness and banality of daily life in the U.S.

One of the beauties of Sonoma County’s libraries is their proximity to city and town centers and their accessibility to public transportation. Then, too, if a branch doesn’t have a book, a librarian will order it for you for free from a sister library.

The main library sits on Fourth and E in downtown Santa Rosa, only a few paces from the building that houses the History and Genealogy Department. Ten branches dot the county landscape. In fact, they’re in Cloverdale, Forestville, Guerneville, Healdsburg, Rohnert Park/Cotati, Occidental, Windsor, Roseland, and in two places not far from the central library, in Coddington and Rincon Valley.

For enologists, there’s the Wine Library on Piper Street in Healdsburg. For archivists and genealogists, there’s the Petaluma History Room at the Petaluma Fairgrounds. For readers at Sea Ranch and Stewarts Point, a bookmobile delivers the latest bestsellers, along with classics by Cervantes, Dickens, Virginia Woolf and Rebecca West, the author of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, who churned out the kind of book reviews that help librarians decide what to order.

More than a century ago, Sonoma’s literary giant, Jack London was reborn when he wandered into the Oakland Public library. The librarian, Ina Coolbrith, gave him an armful of books to take home. London never forgot that she started him on a literary journey that led to the publication of 50 books, many written in Sonoma, including The Valley of the Moon and The Iron Heel, a prophetic novel about the coming of an oligarchy to the U.S. and the eventual triumph of socialism.

At the Sonoma Valley branch of the library system, London’s books are in constant circulation. At the History and Genealogy Library, Katherine Rinehart, author of a volume about Petaluma architecture, keeps rare editions of London’s work under lock and key.

Amy Tan, the daughter of Chinese immigrants and the author of The Joy Luck Club, attended grammar school in Santa Rosa. “I borrowed books from the public library and read all The Little House on the Prairie novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder,” Tan says. “I won a prize for an essay titled ‘What the Library Means to Me,’ in which I said it ‘Turned on a light in the little room in my mind.’”

Currently, 223, 771 Sonoma County residents have library cards that enable them to turn on lights in their minds. 23,000 public school students are enrolled in a new, innovative program that provides them with free, unlimited access to all the technologies that the 21st-century has to offer.

All 23,000 students have an identification number from their school that serves as a kind of passport to the library—and they don’t pay fines for late books, either.

Last year, Sonoma County library patrons checked out 2,000,000 individual items—CDs, books and DVDs—a stunning figure that’s on the fingertips of Ray Holley, who worked in journalism for decades, and who is the new community relation’s manager for the whole system.

Holley has an office at the new library headquarters on State Farm Drive in Rohnert Park that’s undergoing remodeling, renovation and reorganizing. It’s a big step up from the old headquarters, which was located in the basement of the Central Library. The new headquarters is bigger, brighter and with more employees, too, including Jaime Anderson, Jane Greenwood, Vandy Tompkins, Kate Drewieske, Christina Hanson, and Sandra Breedlove, Those six women order new book all day long and read all day long too. It goes with the territory.

Something about a library attracts women and girls, though some guys also love a good book.

Holley says, “As a boy, I went to Santa Rosa Middle School. I was a bookworm. I walked from school at College and Fourth to the library on Fourth and E, where I borrowed books, mostly adventure stories.” He adds, “I still have my library card.”

In addition to its new community relation’s director, the library has a new boss, Ann Hammond, who has an office that’s so new it’s not yet decorated.

For years, Hammond served as the librarian for the city of Lexington, Kentucky, though she brings with her, library experience at both private and public and in Maryland and California.

“I’m trying to get a handle on everything,” Hammond says. “In Lexington I had a simple budget. Sonoma is a challenge, though I know that the library here has amazing programs, great collections, and a staff that wants to do more than it’s doing.”

She adds, “We have old books and new books. We can fix you up with whatever you want.”

Like all librarians, Ann Hammond is a voracious reader.

“I’m into Richard Russo’s novels,” she explains. “I recently finished Straight Man and now I’m in the midst of Everybody’s Fool.”

Hammond is so new to Sonoma that she’s not familiar with local writers, such as Greg Sarris, the author of Grand Avenue and Watermelon Nights. Sarris is also the Chairman of the local American Indian tribe. At present, he’s given up writing to run the Indian-owed Graton Resort and Casino, where he’s soaking up material that might lead to a saga about Indians, high rollers and the big boys from Las Vegas.

The new library head says she was hired because of her managerial skills, success at building bridges to local groups and her knack for raising funds.

Money will be essential if the library is to go on buying books and DVDs, upgrade computers and purchase 500 Hot Spots, which will cost a total of $400,000. Right now, the system is flush, thanks to Measure Y which voters approved in 2016 and that allocates 1/8th of one cent from county sales tax. That adds up to a whooping $11 & 1/2 million a year.

As part of its mission to level the playing field and democratize information, the Sonoma County library system is making it easier for people without access to the Internet—because they live in remote geographical areas and/ or because they can’t afford it—to get online for free.

A large poster on the wall of the Roseland library reminds patrons, many of them Spanish speakers without home computers, that ¼ of all households in America don’t have internet access. In Sonoma County, many of those households are clustered in South West Santa Rosa and along the Russian River where there are pockets of underprivileged Latinx and poor whites.

Kate Keaton, the branch manager in the Roseland library, which shares space with the Boys and Girls Club, says that many kids assume they’ll have to pay to take a book home. They’re elated when they learn they won’t have to spend a dime for a picture book in Spanish or English. They also love the free entertainment.

When Luis Orozco, a bilingual author of children’s books and a recording artist, performed live, recently, the makeshift Roseland library turned into a concert hall. The 500 people in the audience went wild.

Marlene Vera, a native of Peru, helps Roseland kids learn the letters of the alphabet in English.

“There are no real public libraries in Peru,” she says. “Not like

here.” The Roseland library is a magical place for many of the three-, four- and five-year-olds who listen to Vera read aloud from books like Dr. Seuss’s Ten Apples Up on Top.

Rachel Icaza, who directs the library’s Education Initiatives Program, ventures into public schools and reads aloud to students sometimes for three hours at a clip.

“At the library we’re a community of readers,” she says. “Girls will read anything. Boys want non-fiction.”

The changes underfoot have prompted librarians to rethink the library itself as a cultural institution that has existed for thousands of years, and to wonder if it might make the bookstore as an economic enterprise obsolete.

Rohnert Park Cotati librarian, Terra Emerson, calls herself “an avid lover of independent bookstores.” She adds, “Bookstores, unlike libraries, offer people a place to purchase and then keep the books they love and also buy them as gifts for loved ones.”

Emerson’s colleague, Nancy Kleban, now in her 18th year as a librarian, adds, “Some people prefer brand new, clean copies of books; for them, the library is not a good choice.”

Before Emerson became a librarian she worked at a bookstore. Not surprisingly, she touts the talents of booksellers who, are on the whole, she says “very well read and knowledgeable.”

Still, she’s quick to point out that “The public library is one of the only spaces where people can spend all day without being expected to purchase something.” In a commercially driven society like the U.S. that’s amazing. Emerson adds, “bookstores and libraries both promote a love of reading and learning and both act as the heart of a community.”

The libraries in Occidental, Healdsburg, Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park Cotati have been at the heart of my life ever since I arrived in the county in November 1975, and began to write two books— a road novel called Underground, and a work of non-fiction, My Search for B. Traven.

Before I settled here, I was a voracious reader and researcher at the New York Public on 42nd Street, the Central Library in Manchester, England, and the British Museum Reading Room in London where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital. Marx, I’m sure, would have loved the quirky quotation from Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, who said, “A library is a wilderness of books.”

Argentinian novelist, essayist and Buenos Aires librarian, Jorge Luis Borges—who went blind at about 30, and couldn’t read for the next 50 years— imagined the universe as a labyrinth of books in his surrealistic story, “The Library of Babel.”

The house where I grew up had a library where words piled up, sentences blurred into one another and all the hundreds of books seemed to combine to form one vast interconnected text. These days, I get lost in the four-story library at Sonoma State University, where books are always on the shelves, exactly where they’re supposed to be; the whole place feels weirdly under-used.

As author Gore Vidal and others have observed, the older the student, the less he or she enjoys reading because books are assigned and required at schools and colleges and not freely chosen by students themselves.

I’ll take the public library, over the Sonoma State University library, even with its homeless men and women who are, Holley says, “our patrons, too.” He adds, “It’s rare for someone to be 86ed from the library.”

In the 1950s, it wasn’t homeless people, but books themselves that right-wingers wanted to remove from libraries. President Eisenhower famously denounced “the book burners” who actually removed books from shelves and set them on fire.

Today, things are both better and worse.

Books, including Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, are still challenged and censored by school boards and even by some librarians, though libraries almost everywhere celebrate “Banned Books Week”—September 22-28 this year—and honor prohibited novels like The Catcher in the RyeLolitaThe Handmaid’s Tale and 1984. In Ray Bradbury’s novel 451 (1953) “firemen” burn books, an act that inspires the fictional characters to learn them by heart.

The Sonoma County library system, which started in the late 1850s soon after California became a state, has a good record when it comes to not filtering and blocking information, no matter what the form or format.

“We offer free and unfettered information,” Holley explains.

At the Rohnert Park Cotati Library, Terra Emerson offers a free wheeling book group called “Pride.”

“We read and discuss recent books featuring queer characters,” she says. “Reading books with queer characters can help queer teens feel connected and less alone. They can also help those who aren’t a part of the queer community to understand what their peers might be going through and how they can be allies.”

Right now the most popular book with Sonoma County adults is Delia Owens‘s bestselling debut novel, Where the Crawdads Sing. The library system has 116 copies. As of March 2019, 350 people were on the waiting list to receive it.

Delia Owens didn’t come out of nowhere. She’s the co-author of three bestselling nonfiction books—Cry of the KalahariThe Eye of the Elephant and Secrets of the Savanna. Take note, wanna-be authors: publish non-fiction before you try to publish a novel and remember that book sales are boosted by Hollywood movies. Reese Witherspoon is adapting Where the Crawdads Sing for the big screen.

Viviana Rodriguez, a bilingual Santa Rosa 10-year old, grew up listening to her mother, Anna, read aloud books like Smile. Now Viviana reads, on her own, Harry PotterThe Genius Files and The Story Thieves.

“Sometimes kids spend too much time on computers,” Viviana says. “They should shut them down one or two days a week and spend more time reading books.” In today’s world, that’s a subversive idea.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.