The central branch of the Multnomah County Library is the largest library in the largest city in Oregon. More than 800,000 people walked through its doors just in the past year.
"Think Out Loud" recently spent a whole day at the library talking to dozens of people: patrons and librarians and tourists and behind-the-scenes workers. We wanted to go because libraries occupy a rare position in our increasingly compartmentalized society. They’re one of the few places where people from very different worlds still bump up against each other.
It’s like an emergency room, or the DMV, or jury duty — but people actually want to be there.
On a rainy day in April, the central branch opened at 9 a.m. to the public. As soon as the doors opened, there was a flood of children and chaperones. Four different school groups had come for field trips. The children were on a scavenger hunt to find words and images throughout the building. In the children’s section, the noise was cacophonous, but as small groups of children wandered off into other sections, a stern glance from a librarian was enough to quiet them down.
Across the hallway from the children’s section, Bruce Turnlet was sitting on the floor in the fiction section. He’s a retired lawyer who reads a lot of books. He’s not picky about whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, he’s just looking for something to help him escape the everyday humdrum. Memoirs can be particularly meaningful, he says.
“We think of our lives as boring, and everybody else’s – celebrities’ – as interesting, but I think that the average person has a much more interesting tale to tell than they think.”
Vailey Oehlke is the director of libraries for Multnomah County. She says one of the most important services the library offers these days is leveling the digital playing field.
“Libraries are the largest provider – I would argue – in the state of free public access to the internet. Both in terms of equipment … and then more importantly in terms of the people who will help people use that technology to their benefit.”
Oehlke says that conflicts can arise when people from various walks of life are trying to use the same facility, so it's important that the library remains a place that welcomes everyone, regardless of circumstance.
“It’s true we do have people in this library who are living on the street or have really fragile housing status and I’m proud of the fact that they have this place to come to. And for the most part, everybody is really well behaved and respects the space and respects one another.”
Roughly 30 percent of the library’s collection is stored in its basement and even in the sub-basement – simply because there isn’t enough room above. Bruce Jenks is an access services assistant. He gave us a tour of parts of the building that aren’t open to the public.
In one room, stacks of bright yellow-and-orange egg crates sort books headed out to or coming back from different branches.
If you’ve ever wondered what happened to the books you put in a return slot at the street level on the side of the building, they slide down a chute into a sorting area in the basement.
James Price, a worker in the IT department in the basement, says that the Central Branch is tapped into a nearby fiber optics cable for an extremely strong connection to the internet.
“A beautiful amount of data goes through there and the data itself is beautiful. That’s one of the things I enjoy: the beauty of the data. And putting it out there for people to use. If you have dark data that people can’t get to ... they can’t leverage it to make their lives better and make the community better. That’s really what we’re about here: getting useful information out to people in a way that helps their lives.”
Staff at the library rotate locations every hour, so that they all have familiarity with all parts of the building. On the morning we visited, Monica Porter was working at the bottom of the returns chute checking in books. Even first thing in the morning, it seemed like the books were arriving awfully fast.
“You have to pace yourself and realize you’re not going to do it all in your hour here,” says Porter.
Charles Edwards Jr. was sitting on a bench a few feet away from a men’s bathroom. He was surrounded by several bags. His cell phone was charging nearby. Edwards says he spends several days a week at this library, drawing and writing poetry, and looking for peace.
“The library is peaceful. It’s quiet up here. Silent. And you got to be silent in a library. It’s a lot of books to read, a lot of things to do and a lot of peaceful people.”
Dave Ratliff is the director of the Central Branch. He says there is certainly a stereotype that librarians are introverted people, but that the job – more than ever these days – really requires an ability to solve problems for patrons.
“The best advice I could give somebody who was thinking about becoming a librarian is: if you can’t deal with some pretty tense issues and resolving problems for human beings, this is not the place to be. Because this is not a book warehouse.”