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.”
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: I’m Dave Miller. This is Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. We have an unusual show for you today. It’s a portrait not of a person but of a place back in 2017, we spent a whole day at the central branch of the Multnomah County Library. We’re listening back to that show today because the building recently closed for renovations. The Central Library is the largest library in the largest city in the state. 800,000 people walked through its doors in 2016 and libraries occupy a pretty 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. In that sense, they’re like an emergency room or the DMV or jury duty with one big difference. People actually want to be there.
Our executive producer, Sage Van Wing and I visited the library on a rainy Thursday in April. We talked to dozens of people, patrons, librarians, tourists and behind the scenes workers. We found people who were just stopping in to pick up a book or a DVD and people who brought all of their belongings with them and were spending the day there because they had nowhere else to go. The Central branch opened for the public at 9:00 a.m. As soon as the doors opened there was a flood of children and chaperones, four different school groups had come for field trips. Suzanne Putman was there as a parent volunteer from Finley Elementary School in Beaverton; they were doing a scavenger hunt throughout the library.
Suzanne Putnam: All right so we’re naming two things that we found on the tree in the children’s library.
Child: I found two.
Putnam: You found two. What?
Child: A turtle
Putnam: A turtle.
Child: And a pig’s snout.
Putnam: A pig’s mouth?
Child: A pig’s snout.
Putnam: Oh okay, a pig’s snout. Great!
Miller: I headed over to the tiny tots class which is held in the story theater. It’s a little cove in the children’s area with carpeted risers. About 10 babies and toddlers were sitting on the knees of parents and grandparents. [Song with chorus and clapping in background.]
Nick and his 15-month old daughter, Josette, were there. He said they come every week, sometimes twice a week.
Nick: Otherwise we’re just at home a lot and it’s just me and her. And so this gives her a chance to interact with other kids and get out and about and see some people.
Miller: What does it mean for you if you’re always at home with her alone?
Nick: It gives me some time to see some adults and have some adult conversations and not just be stuck watching children’s programming or singing children’s songs with only her.
Miller: Do you have a favorite song here?
Nick: We probably like “Hello Bubbles” which is the first song that we do and then there’s bubbles to pop. [Song in background: “Hello bubbles, hello bubble, come and land, come and land, right in the middle, right in the middle, of hand, of my hand.”
Miller: In the children’s section, Sage found Meg Asby who was going through the shelves in a corner with her two young kids. They visit the library at the same time every week and they have a whole system.
Meg Asby: We usually max out our holds and then grab those and then come over to the children’s section and then just say yes to everything. But I think it’s grand.
Miller: And what are you looking for here on the shelves right now?
Asby: We’re very regular patrons so we’re actually going through alphabetically, like just the ones we haven’t read. So we started in the A’s and we’re making our way through, we just go into the bags full. You can go through a lot of picture books in a short amount of time.
Miller: Across the hallway from the children’s section, Bruce Turnlen was sitting on the floor in the fiction section. I asked what he was looking for.
Bruce Turnlen: I like everything from fantasy, science fiction, mysteries. Gosh, just about anything that’ll help me escape. Philosophy.
Miller: Escape from what?
Turnlen: Oh, just everyday humdrum and all the junk that goes on with regard to politics, which after a while this gets to be a pain.
Miller: Do you mainly read fiction?
Turnlen: Mostly fiction, yeah, but if somebody recommends a good nonfiction book and I like it, I enjoy it. In fact, recently there was a story on your station about the guy who wrote “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Robert Pirsig, dying. And I remember reading that one and enjoying it immensely at the time that I read it. I particularly like the part where he talked about us constantly stepping into vignettes of other people’s lives because that happened to me a number of times. I remember an incident in West Virginia at about four in the morning, pulling into a caboose diner and seeing a police officer and this waitress sort of flirting and I got the impression they did that on a regular basis. It was a romance that was ongoing. And I just kind of felt like I sort of stepped into a little part of their vignette and he mentions that in his book and I thought that that was rather interesting.
Miller: Some kind of sort of imaginative empathy like reading fiction.
Turnlen: Like reading fiction. Yes. It makes us aware of the fact that our everyday lives are a lot more interesting than we think. We think of our lives as boring and everybody else’s, including celebrities, are interesting, but I think that the average person has a much more interesting tale to tell than they think it’s just that they lived it. So it must be boring.
Miller: We went up to the fifth floor which is only accessible to staff. There’s a great view of the living roof and parts of downtown. Vailey Oehlke joined us in the conference room there. She’s the director of the entire Multnomah County Library System. I asked her what the purpose of a library is in the digital age.
Vailey Oehlke: One of their big values of libraries is that they’re free to everybody. Well, you can go to Amazon or you can go to Google. You still have to have some resources in order to access those tools. So at the library, they’re free, they’re accessible. I think also what we have that’s unique is we have people who are available who will serve you and give you fabulous customer service for free and individualized to what your learning and information needs are.
Miller: What’s one of the stories you had in mind when you’re talking about people accessing services or resources here who may not have the means to buy them?
Oehlke: One of my favorite stories is a story about an older woman who came into one of our branches, our North Portland library branch, years ago and she had just lost her job. She was the main breadwinner for her family and she did that by providing housekeeping services at a major department store. And it turned out that all the jobs she was applying for required an online application. She’d never used a computer, she never even used a mouse and she thought of walking into the North Portland branch library where one of our staff sat down with her for a couple of hours, helped her learn how to use a keyboard and a mouse and set up an email account for her. Because of course, she had to have an email in order to correspond with the potential employer, helped her fill out her online application and helped her submit several applications. And in time she returned and let us know that she had indeed landed a job.
Miller: And you see that work as part of the job description of being a librarian now?
Oehlke: Absolutely. We talk a lot about what we call digital equity and we are the largest provider–I would argue in the state–of free public access to the internet and both in terms of equipment, the computers, the laptop–we check out Chromebooks–but also in terms of the internet access and nd then more importantly, in terms of the people who will help people use that technology to their benefit.
Miller: Is it fair to say that you think of a library, not just as an information source or a resource source, but as a social service agency?
Oehlke: In some ways, yes. We talk a lot about the library’s role in terms of leveling the playing field. For a lot of folks, this is the one place where they’re treated with dignity, no matter who they are. They get to ask questions, they get to sit and read the newspaper, they get to socialize with their friends in ways that aren’t necessarily readily available to them in other parts of this community. And then even for people with resources, we are a place that provides a space where people can have a conversation around topics that might be challenging otherwise. We’re a place where people can get information on topics that they might be a little shy to be researching in other places or asking for help with.
Miller: What do you think about in terms of that last bit about people being shy to research certain things? What are you imagining?
Oehlke: Well, we know for a fact that especially with young folks who are experiencing the sorts of changes that come with growing older and exploring who you are as an individual. Often those are conversations or questions. Sometimes they don’t want to ask parents or friends, but coming to the library, talking to someone who’s a stranger but doesn’t know you–isn’t a part of your life per se–and who respects your privacy, those kinds of conversations and those kinds of questions I think can be explored more easily at the library.
Miller: Is there any way in which right now, based on all the mix of people that are using a big library like this central library, that the populations are in conflict with each other? Do people who come here to check out a book or to use the internet briefly ever complain to staff about, say things like there are too many homeless people here? There are too many people who have all their bags here. I don’t like the way this place smells. I mean, do people get in opposition with each other?
Oehlke: Absolutely. But I might suggest that happens anywhere that we actually have to get out of our own sort of boundaries of life. And, as I mentioned earlier, this building is a place where people from all walks of life come together. And 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. For the most part, everybody’s really well behaved and respects the space and respects one another.
Miller: How do you use the library?
Oehlke: I use the library for checking out books. I’m definitely still sort of the dinosaur print reader.
Miller: Do you ever forget to turn your books in on time?
Oehlke: Absolutely. But don’t tell anybody I said that. [Laughter] In fact, I have some fines on the books right now that I need to pay off.
Miller: Right now? And then you’ll pay those off.
Miller: Because I would tell people if you said no.
Oehlke: I definitely pay my fines.
Miller: This makes me feel better because I always feel like I’m just a slightly bad person for almost always not turning books in quite in time.
Oehlke: I think when I tell people I work at the library, they often say similar things to what you just said. Oh, my gosh. I think I have some fines. Sometimes I’ll ask if I can forgive them, which of course I can’t. People feel like a responsibility. That’s one of the things that’s cool about the library, right? Which is that everybody owns this library. So we have this shared responsibility for maintaining it and taking care of its resources.
Miller: That’s Vailey Oehlke, the director of libraries for Multnomah County. On the second floor stairwell, Sage ran into John Dance who was visiting from Ottawa, Canada. He was taking a picture of an engraving on the wall.
John Dance: All libraries are always the best part of the city. I love libraries.
Sage Van Wing: Do you go to the library whenever you’re a tourist?
Dance: I go to every city’s library to see what they’re like.
Van Wing: And how does this one stack up?
Dance: Well, so far great. It has beautiful art and it’s a lovely building. Great location. Yes, I quite enjoy it.
Miller: In one of the big reading rooms on the first floor, most of the people at the long tables were checking in on Facebook or watching videos with headphones on or reading the newspaper. They were all in their own little worlds. But among that solitary activity, two men were sitting across from each other playing chess. There was a big age gap between them. The younger one, Yidel, told me why they were at the library.
Yidel: We used to gather at Director Park here, but then because of the weather, we decided to come here.
Miller: Do you speak the same language?
Yidel: No, he speaks Russian or some other language and I speak Spanish.
Miller: So the two of you, the only language you really both speak together is chess.
Yidel: Yes, I’d say so.
Miller: How old are you? And, and how old do you think he is?
Yidel: Well, he’s like 60, I’d say. And I’m 31.
Yidel: So he’s double my age, but chess is just like the biggest hobby here.
Miller: And who wins more of the games?
Yidel: Well, I don’t know. Between the two of us, we are even most of the time. So there are other guys that play better, but we have the most fun all the time.
Miller: What does chess mean to you?
Yidel: I don’t know. It’s everything. It’s my biggest hobby. So it’s like taking the stress away, I’d say.
Miller: The reading rooms are gorgeous, but even the basement of the library has its own kind of functional beauty. Bruce Jenks is an access services assistant. He gave us a tour of the parts of the building that aren’t open to the public. In one room, stacks of bright yellow and orange egg crates were used to sort books out or come back from different branches.
Bruce Jenks: So three times a day, the drivers will pull up back here and bring the crates in through here. There’s a little freight elevator in the back.
Miller: 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. The IT department is there as well near some racks of servers as we ran into James Price. He told us that the Central branch happens to have an extremely strong connection to the internet.
James Price: Our networking team saw an opportunity to get ahead of our future data requirements. So we grabbed this when we had the chance. So it’s extremely fast and big. So a lot of data goes through there, a tremendous amount. Leave off the tremendous. It’s a word I shouldn’t sully myself with while I’m playing. You can use it if you want to.
Miller: It doesn’t seem like a good enough word.
Price: Tremendous. It’s the word I’ve heard too much.
Miller: Ok. What would you rather use? Would you say that a beautiful amount of data goes through this network?
Price: Yeah, I’d say a beautiful amount of data goes through there and the data itself is beautiful. One of the things I enjoy is the beauty of the data and putting it out for people to use. If you have dark data that people can’t get to and don’t know about, they can’t leverage it to make their lives better, make the community better. So that’s really what we’re about here is getting useful information out to people in a way that helps their lives.
Miller: Around the corner from James, Monica Porter was checking in books that had come down the return chute. Even first thing in the morning, it seemed like the books were arriving awfully fast.
Monica Porter: You have to pace yourself and realize, hey, you’re not going to do it all, let’s say in your hour here at Central. It’s ok to leave some because the next person will pick up and sometimes they have a slow time and they’ll get caught up.
Miller: While we’ve been talking about 10 DVDs and six books have come down the shoot. I apologize for the backlog.
Porter: That’s alright? It’s not an overwhelming amount. It’ll get done. Yeah.
Miller: Mainly what you find in the basement is hundreds of feet of shelving. They’re called the closed stacks. Roughly 30% of the library’s collection is stored in the basement and even in the sub basement, simply because there’s not enough room up above. The shelves expand and contract accordion like at the push of a button. If there’s ever a James Bond movie that takes place in the library, I can totally imagine a villain trying to squash 007 between the stacks. As we made our way through the basement, a young library employee named Travis, who he’d met briefly earlier. came running back. He had an urgent message.
Travis: I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t make a comment for readers because I know books and reading are going to get lost in this discussion, maybe a little bit because there is so much more that the library has to offer. But I just wanted to put in a word for readers and there’s just a few quotes that couple of things I have written down. “For me, passionate reading is a form of permanent opposition. Reading is a temporary surrender of our noisy little ego to great artistry. With reading, one takes part in the great conversation.” I just wanted to give you that.
Miller: Thank you. Where are those quotes from?
Travis: Different places I’ve collected from reading.
Miller: What does reading mean to you personally?
Travis: Reading is one of the places that I just like to go when I need time to get back to myself. I’ve learned, I’ve grown, I wouldn’t be the person I’ve become if it wasn’t for reading. And I just have a respect for it and a love for it and an admiration for it and for writers and for the writing. That’s what I love is great writing. That’s what impresses me. That’s what keeps me coming back.
Miller: Is that why you work here?
Travis: Yeah. And I love this building, too.
Miller: What do you love about this building?
Travis: That there are books everywhere. I just feel comfortable in the surroundings.
Miller: After the tour we came back upstairs. Charles Edwards Jr., was sitting on a bench a few feet away from a men’s bathroom. The hand dryers would woosh on every few seconds. He was surrounded by several bags. His cell phone was charging nearby.
Charles Edwards Jr.: But yeah, I’m just in the library just relaxing my mind. I am about to draw some, write some poetry and charge up, and drink some orange juice.
Miller: Do you write a lot of poetry?
Edwards Jr.: A little bit here and there. Yeah. Other than that, I freestyle. I like to listen to music (my beats) and read the Bible. Well, other than that, I’m just relaxing, getting a peace of mind.
Miller: Is it hard to get peace?
Edwards Jr.: Sometimes. It depends on how I’m feeling during the day. Yeah. If I’m feeling good and if I’m feeling ok then it just eases away. If I’m feeling like the day is difficult and it kind of gets hard to get a peace of more. Yeah. Other than that, the library is peaceful. It’s quiet up here. Silent and you gotta be silent in the library. It’s a lot of books to read. There’s a lot of things to do and it’s a lot of peaceful people. So all that together just adds up positively.
Miller: Do you spend a lot of time here?
Edwards Jr.: Most of the time. Yeah, mostly throughout the days of the week.
Miller: Is this all of your stuff right now that you have with you?
Edwards Jr.: Most of it. This is everything I’ve got right here.
Miller: This is all of it?You got a big garbage bag and a backpack. Do you have a place to sleep?
Edwards Jr.: Yeah, I stay at a shelter downtown Rescue Mission. They’re just helping everybody out, helping everyone get stable and on the right page in their life and get a place to stay for themselves.
Miller: Do you see that in the near future for yourself, your own place? And, and not having to stay at the shelter?
Edwards Jr.: Definitely. As soon as I get everything together and my family back intact, my son together and myself back on the right page so I can make a new chapter and make a new book. Start over and start fresh, start fresh.
Miller: We went back to the fifth floor to talk to Dave Ratliff, who’s the director of the Central branch. He started out working at a library at Portland State University when he was a student there.
Dave Ratliff: It was the only job I had ever had that I didn’t hate.
Miller: What didn’t you hate about the job?
Ratliff: Everything. It was not boring, but it wasn’t super stressful. It was interesting and sort of engaged my mind to a degree that previous job experiences hadn’t. Helping people was really cool. And just the fact that patrons even at that library ranged from really wealthy businessmen working on a project for 3M coming in to do research in the engineering library to folks who were just trying to figure out some of the very most basic things about fixing their cars.
Miller: What did libraries mean to you growing up?
Ratliff: I had kind of a bit of a transient lifestyle growing up, in all honesty. I went to multiple elementary schools in multiple states. There was not much stability in my world. So libraries were the kind of one constant in every city we might end up in, that was a place where I could go and feel safe and have something interesting and useful to do and not just be out on the streets getting in trouble. And so I sort of jokingly say that I’ve literally spent my life hanging out in libraries, but it’s not a joke. It’s true.
Miller: What’s the hardest thing about managing the Central branch of the Multnomah County Public Library?
Ratliff: I think the hardest thing is probably keeping the needs of an enormous spectrum of people in mind, not just the public, but also the staff. But from the public side of things, you’ve got everything from folks who might be without a place to live to somebody who is coming in to do really pretty high level research and everything in between. You might have somebody having the best day of their life or the worst day of their life and keeping everything welcoming for everybody across that spectrum at both ends and everything in between can be a little bit of a challenge, sometimes.
Miller: Did you have any training in the social service side of this? I mean, if you’re dealing with people who come to you and say I was just assaulted or I don’t know where I’m going to sleep tonight. It strikes me that you’re not likely to have learned that when you get, say a master’s in library science.
Ratliff: We kind of wing it a lot of the time. And that’s part of why we now have a social worker who actually is in the building. There’s somebody in the building about 40 hours a week to help out with some of that stuff that was really kind of beyond the level of what we could offer. But yeah, we didn’t get trained on all that kind of stuff in library school and so mostly that ends up being something you kind of have to teach yourself and you just sort of struggle through.
Miller: What have you learned?
Ratliff: I think I’ve learned to accept pretty much anybody at this point regardless of what their situation is and just sort of sit back and look at them as exactly where they are in this particular time and place. And is there anything that I, in the library, can do for them? And if not, is there anybody else I can send them on to, who can help with that?
Miller: I’ve noticed over time and a little bit today that the people who might be attracted to the worlds of reference or books, they may not have been the most social people or they may not deal with others with the most ease. First of all, is that true? Is that an unfair generalization? And, and if it is true, how do you deal with that as a library manager?
Ratliff: I think that’s becoming less true. But at one point in time, I think you could definitely say that librarians were an entire society of introverts and that was maybe not the best plan. And certainly what people need from libraries is changing and what people need from librarians is changing. So the best advice I would 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 and I’m not really sure that it ever was. I think we just pretended that it was and that we could ignore the rest of what was going on in society, but the reality is that anything that’s happening in the world is gonna come through our doors and we’re gonna see that here. And frankly, we’d better be ready to deal with that.
Miller: In the afternoon, we ran into Ralph Jackson. He was a first year law student and he was looking for John Grisham books. He said, one of the main things he uses a library for is to check out musical books and scores. I asked him how law school was going.
Ralph Jackson: It’s going good. I’m going to finish.
Miller: That’s the spirit.
Jackson: So the Oregon Bar is definitely a challenge.
Miller: But music, too?
Jackson: Yeah. I love piano. Music is my life. My heart beats music. So, yeah.
Miller: Downstairs Catherine Pesta was sitting at a table filling out a job application.
Catherine Pesta: Because I don’t have a printer at home and I got a library card a couple weeks ago. I just recently moved here, so I’m starting to utilize it more and more. And yeah, I figured I’d come here and check out the printing and scanning services and so far, so good.
Miller: On the second floor mezzanine, Mike Summers was reading a newspaper. He was unemployed and was looking for work. He told our executive producer, Sage Van Wing, that he’d probably spend two or three hours at the library that day waiting until he could go to a friend’s house.
Mike Summer: We just picked out some DVDs and my girlfriend is on the computer. I’m just waiting for her to get off the computer to find out what else we’re gonna do.
Van Wing: Why the library?
Summer: It’s just kind of a relaxing place and atmosphere and they have computers. So, there’s a lot you can do, but it’s kind of just a relaxing place.
Miller: Vonda Carter was in line at the information desk in the lobby. She’s partially blind and was looking for a book about the Vietnam War.
Vonda Carter: I am looking for a book that I hope is on tape. Can you look it up for me?
I’m looking for FitzGerald’s “Fire in the Lake” and it was a Pulitzer Prize winner and I want to know if it’s on tape because I’m blind.
Librarian: Francis Fitzgerald?
Carter: Yes, that’s the one.
Librarian: I just see it in book form. I don’t see it in audiobooks.
Carter: Even though it was a Pulitzer prize back in the 70s? I think it was. I can’t believe that.
Miller: Vonda went upstairs to the reference desk to see if she could find the book in large print. Meanwhile, Sage spotted a group of women in the middle of a lobby staring at the staircase. A woman named Mona says she brings all of her out-of-town visitors to see it.
Mona: I just think it’s so beautiful, the artistry and it’s black granite, I think, and it’s etched with all local Northwest Pacific Northwest flowers and plants and animals and scenes from nature and words like experience and hope and begin. And it just is the most perfect thing for a library. And the library itself has this feeling of a temple to books, which is what I love about libraries because I love books and if I could, I would live in a library. So this staircase is just so perfect and you can tell it was made with love and people care about it and I just can’t believe people walk on it, but it’s holding up. It’s lovely.
Miller: So there are those stairs of course, but we also took the elevator a lot since the staff only the elevator was being repaired, there was a security guard serving as an elevator operator and the only remaining one was there to make sure that members of the public didn’t end up on restricted floors. On our third or fourth trip in the elevator, we asked if we could talk to him. While we were talking, the elevator went up and down, up and down and people were getting on and off.
Gabriel Michael Asafa: My name is Gabriel Michael Asafa.
Miller: How long have you worked in the elevator here?
Asafa: Four days, four days.
Miller: This is your fourth day? You just started this week?
Asafa: Yeah, I just said.
Miller: And what has it been like for you so far?
Asafa: To me it’s not healthy. It’s unhealthy to me, it’s confined, to be honest. It’s truly unsophisticated to have no air in a cage and motion up and down every second. I told my boss that I can’t do this anymore from today on because it makes me very, very, very sick. I’m sick, to be honest.
Miller: Where are you from originally?
Asafa:I am from Eritrea, a small tiny country.
Miller: How long have you been in the US?
Asafa: It’s about 3 ½ years now.
Miller: What did you do in Eritrea?
Asafa: It was a long story. I was working for the Ministry of Agriculture and then I worked as a veterinarian and before I came, I was working as a beekeeper.
Miller: So Ministry of Agriculture and then as a veterinarian and then as a beekeeper?
Miller: Did you like being a beekeeper?
Asafa: I liked it very much but here it’s difficult, my brother, to find a job here, can I say in the US? They don’t consider the certificate of the university that someone finished with, I mean, the studies. So at this time, going back to school is a little bit hard. I do have responsibilities. So I have to….
Miller: At that point, a man drumming a guitar got onto the elevator. We’re from OPB. Do you mind if we talk to you just for a second?
Alex Brezjelskas: No.
Miller: What are you up to today?
Brezjelskas: I’m going to go get some books to study.
Miller: And you walk around just with a guitar on your shoulder and just strum it a little bit?
Brezjelskas: Yeah. Yeah, I do, I do, I do.
Miller: Do you mind giving us a song? We’re doing a radio show about life in the library today.
Brezjelskas: Well, I can give you a little portion of Blues in C minor, I guess.
[Guitar music playing]
Miller: What’s your name?
Brezjelskas: Alex Brezjelskas.
Miller: Thanks very much.
Brezjelskas: Yeah. Thank you.
Miller: What do you think of the library itself? Clearly going up and down all day in this confined space has made you feel sick and terrible, but what about being in a library?
Asafa: Oh, the library? Yeah, it’s nice. The library is very helpful. I said they are very helpful ladies and gentlemen here. They help you with finding a job like developing a resume, things like that. They do. I like them.
Miller: Well, good luck. I hope you can find a job that works better for you.
Asafa: Thank you so much. Thank you
Miller: Do you mind taking us to the first floor?
Woman’s voice: We are on the first floor.
Miller: Oh, are we on the first floor? Oh, we went up and down so many times. I didn’t know where we were. Thank you.
Asafa: Yeah. Have a great day.
Miller: Around lunch time, we went to a meeting room at the front of the lobby to catch lunch and learn about a class called “Planting Yourself Where You Will Bloom.” It was taught by the career coach Jennifer Anderson.
Jennifer Anderson: [Speaking to an audience] I want you to know what it is that you are wonderful at so that you can give that gift to the world and have all the joy and all the fun and all the meaning and all the money.
Miller: Anthony Solano was in the audience. He had moved to town recently with his wife and was looking for work.
Anthony Solano: It’s definitely been the longest I’ve gone without having a full time job.
Miller: What’s it been like?
Solano: It’s been actually nice. I was at my previous position for seven years and was definitely feeling burnt out and ready for a change and so it hasn’t been too bad. Of course, the stress of finding a job is tough, but having the time to get acquainted with the area has been nice.
Miller: Later in the day, we met up with a library social worker, Susan Voss-Rothmeier. She’s employed by Cascadia Behavioral Health. I asked her what a normal work day looks like.
Susan Voss-Rothmeier: So a lot of it is outreach to people, just patrons. I walk around and I introduce myself and let them know I’m here and tell them if they need community resources that I’m available. They can ask staff for me anytime and some of them say thanks and then later ask for me. Some of them right away say they need certain resources and then I sit down with them and talk with them about what they need and get referrals started. So a lot of it is outreach. Some of it is actual crisis response. So if somebody’s situation is escalated, maybe some arguments have happened between two patrons and staff are sort of trying to intervene or figure out how they can help somebody, they’ll call me to come and, and meet and try to assess the situation.
Since so many patrons here are homeless, they sometimes don’t have other places to be when they have arguments or they have just sort of usual life stuff going on in the way that those of us who have housing, we can sort of retreat somewhere else. But here it’s all out in the open and sort of like their living room. So things happen. So I just step in and try to figure out what resources they need that sort of led to the situation that they’re here at the library.
Miller: Are there a bunch of regulars that you now see day in day out?
Voss-Rothmeier: There are a lot of people I know well. As I walk through the library, I can name probably half the people that are sitting around in the rooms of the library.
Miller: What do you think it takes to be good at your job?
Voss-Rothmeier: I think a lot of willingness to sort of be present. There’s some people who just need to talk or they don’t really know what they need and just need to sort of let their whole story be known. There’s a range of people that I see here who probably anyone else they talk to on the street would just walk by and not want to give them the time of day. And it feels an honor for someone to feel comfortable with me and open up and seek help because they often don’t get that anywhere else.
Miller: Upstairs in the periodicals room, Sage found Charles Brooks looking at an old issue of “Better Homes and Gardens” magazine. I have to say when we first came up with this idea of recording a whole show in a library, I imagined the whole thing would be done in a kind of whisper. But this was really the only conversation that sounds like that. Sage asked Charles what he was up to.
Charles Brooks: Well, mostly I’m memorizing scriptures in the Bible.
Van Wing: But you’re in the magazine section.
Brooks: Well, it’s just kind of a break just looking at some old, some magazines from 30, 40 years, about 30 years back. It is kind of sort of nostalgic. Once in a while I like to kinda go back in time and just think about the times when things were a lot more simpler. Society was a lot more behaved than it is today. And, Christianity was a lot more accepted back then, too. People were more interested in the Bible and what the Bible teaches about society, about the family. And, even back then the library was a much better place back then. The library was the second most peace-seeking place next to the church, but that’s no longer true. No more.
Van Wing: What is it like?
Brooks: Now the library has got a lot of violence, believe it or not, a lot of trouble, dope abuse in the library. You see the Bible say it, this is a fulfillment of the Bible that the times would get worse. There’d a lot of violence.
Van Wing: What are you doing with all those memorized verses?
Brooks: Well, I tell people about it and stuff whenever I’m talkin’ to friends who are Christians and non Christians, both, and in one way, I could use a lot of ‘em to tell people about Jesus Christ. People who don’t know him as their savior.
Van Wing: Do you spend a lot of time in the library?
Brooks: Boy oh, yeah I do. Yeah, I sure do.
Van Wing: Why?
Brooks: The library is a mission field for me. I wanna tell people about Jesus Christ and I have, I told a lot of people, I told patrons, people that just sorta drift in and out. I told them. I talked to some librarians already and I’m gonna keep doing that, too, because everybody needs to know Jesus. It doesn’t matter who you are in life. It doesn’t matter your status or your class in life. We all need Jesus Christ and we all need to hear about him, including you. See.
Miller: Meanwhile, I was in the Sterling Room for writers. It’s like a little oasis, a small book lined room with high windows and four wooden desks. You can only get in if you have a key and you can only get that key if you’ve previously been granted access. Sabina Hilding is a fiction writer. She comes to the room when she has a problem with her writing that she can’t solve at home.
Sabina Hilding: Multnomah Public solves many problems for me.
Miller: What’s the problem that you’re trying to solve today, the writing problem?
Hilding: I write fiction, short stories. And recently, shall we say, I have some fans about a particular series of things I’m writing that have to do with–I hate to say this because it sounds like I’m an amateur–childhood stuff. And it’s difficult to go there, especially when you’re old like me and I don’t like particularly creative nonfiction. So I’m trying to turn this into fiction, which in a way it is because memory changes things so radically that truth is gone. So I’m trying to solve this and find a way to begin and a way to enter this story and find a viewpoint that I can live with now for several months and finish my work.
Miller: And that was hard at home or hard in a coffee shop?
Hilding: At home, yes, it was difficult at home. I have a study at home but there are always things that I have to do. Too much. I’m totally addicted to Google, you might want to say. And when I really want to solve a problem, I first have to do it on paper. I can’t do it near my computer because I end up researching stuff and that’s toxic. It doesn’t work for my writing process here.
Miller: Sage went to the English language class which like all classes at the library is free. But it turned out nobody had showed up. Well, nobody, but the teacher. Kenzo Gardner is employed by Goodwill. He teaches at libraries all over the county. On any given day, there might be as many as 25 people in one of his classes. Some of them speak no English at all.
Kenzo Gardner: Each person has an issue that they’re working on–if they need to pay the rent or to go to the doctor or make an interview–they know what their goal is and we try to work towards their goal. So I had a guy who came from Vietnam who couldn’t speak any English and we used to communicate with signs, but the goal was that by the end of the 10 weeks that he’ll be able to say “hi, my name is,” “I’m from,” “my telephone number is.” So we worked 10 weeks. The 1st 10 weeks with Google Translate and a lot of laughing and he came out with the basics but he’s also an older gentleman and just to work with him, it takes a little bit of patience and you can. He knows that he’s not a child so he can’t learn as fast. And when you’re adults you don’t want to take as many risks because you don’t want to be wrong.
Van Wing: Is there anything special about the class being at a library?
Gardner: It’s nice because it’s a community. It’s where you take your kids. It’s where you see lots of different people and you see some of the same people that live near you. And so I guess it’s more like if you don’t like school or if you’re intimidated by school, it’s like a non threatening place to go and hang out where you can feel like you can learn. It doesn’t have to be English. You can learn anything. You sit there and read books.
Miller: Speaking of books, I figured I’d borrow one while I was there: “A History of the Columbia” by Richard White called “The Organic Machine.” I’d been meaning to read it for a while. I had someone point me to the right section and then asked the librarian Emily Jane Dawson if she could help me find it.
Emily Jane Dawson: So after 797 your number is W5780. That’s going to be….
Miller: Do you know a lot of the Dewey Decimal System in your head?
Dawson: Some parts I do. Some I don’t. Just practice. I’ve been here a long time so…
Miller: So, if I said 750, do you know what’s in the 750s? I just made that number up.
Dawson: [Laughter] Yeah.
Miller: I mean, I have no idea what it is. You could lie to me. I wouldn’t even know.
Dawson: I can tell you. The 700s is art and the 750s is painting and some of the other works that are flat.
Miller: That’s amazing. Ok. 690
Dawson: 690. That one is not coming to me.
Miller: Ok. 620.
Dawson: Oh 690. Wait.
Miller: Ok. 690?
Dawson: Ok. I got it and this may not be everything that’s there, but some of the things that are there are about construction, like building houses, building a deck, that kind of thing. What was the next one you gave me?
Dawson: This is an exciting quiz.
Miller: You’re telling me.
Dawson: 620s is mechanical stuff. So car repair would be there, but also books about other kinds of vehicles, such as helicopters, airplanes, tricycles, bicycles, that kind of thing.
Dawson: 400 languages.
Miller: Do you have your own bookshelves at home? Please tell me that it’s arranged with the Dewey Decimal System.
Dawson: Not at all. [laughter] I actually don’t have very many books and the reason why is because I’m here every day so I have only books that I would need to look at all the time. I have almost no fiction and very little that would just be for general interest reading unless it’s a favorite book that I’ve loved for my whole life.
Miller: What’s one of the favorite books that, even though you work in a library and are surrounded by books all day, you need to have in your home.
Dawson: It’s a book that I loved when I was a little girl. It’s called “The Pink Motel” by Carol Brink.
Miller: Why did you love it?
Dawson: It’s kind of an escapist story. There’s a mystery in it and there’s two little kids whose family moves to Florida because they’ve inherited a pink motel and then they find this mystery that they have to solve and it turns out it’s really, they think it’s terrible but it’s really not, everything turns out fine in the end.
Dawson: 390 is kind of a miscellaneous area that’s stuff about cultures and traditions. Etiquette is in there, books about customs, folklore also.
Miller: Ok. One more only because you haven’t missed one yet. This is amazing. I love that. There’s also just such a miscellaneous one.
Ok. Do you have a favorite number?
Miller: Ok. Then I’ll just throw this out there. 270?
Dawson: I don’t know that one. 200s are religions and almost all of the religion numbers have to do with Christianity and that’s in the giant chunk that’s Christianity.
Miller: So, in an American library, most religion is about Christianity?
Dawson: We use the Dewey Decimal System which was invented in the 19th century.
Miller: There we are.
Dawson: Do you want to find your book, please?
Miller: Yes. 979.7 W5780.
Dawson: So we’re looking at 979.5 right here. So it’s going to be a little to the right. So here’s 979.7 and then yours is a W so it’s going to be further down. There’s some Ws. So I forgot. What’s after the W.
Dawson: Oh, ok. So there’s, here it is.
Miller: “The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River.” Thank you.
Dawson: You are welcome.
Miller: On my way out the door. I stopped in the children’s section one more time. I found Matt Caldwell who was there with his two daughters, Mia, who’s 10 and her younger sister, Gracie. I asked Gracie what she was looking for.
Gracie Caldwell: I’m looking for books to read.
Miller: What kind of books do you like to read?
Gracie: I like to read just, like, mm.
Miller: Some help from your sister. Fiction?
Miller: And what about you? What are you looking for today?
Mia Caldwell: Oh, yeah. I like to read fiction, chapter books and sometimes nonfiction.
Miller: So, a little bit of everything. What do you look for? I mean, how do you decide if you’re gonna be the chooser? How do you decide what books your daughters are going to like?
Matt Caldwell: Yeah, for Mia, she’s blowing me away by how quickly she can read 300 or 400 page books. So I get three or four of these books at a time. So I’m really looking for chapter books that are her age appropriate but have each of the books in a series that I can get all three at once.
Miller: Because you have got just a vacuum cleaner on your hands?
Matt: Yes. She read over 1200 pages in four days.
Miller: So she’s obsessed with reading.
Matt: Oh my God.
Miller: How much time do you spend reading each day? Do you think?
Mia: I don’t know, maybe one or two hours or something.
Miller: Are you a reader, too? It just runs in the family.
Matt: Yeah. Yeah, we’re all readers. And they read every night before bed so if they’re hooked into a good book then they’re ready to get in and out of the shower quickly and get right to bed so they can get the most amount of time reading.
Miller: Do you miss reading them stories? Now they’re at an age where they’re reading thousands of pages on their own.
Matt: Yeah with two girls, that was definitely a big part of it. It was about an hour each night, reading to them, but I’ll be honest, I don’t miss it. No, because now I can read my own book while they’re doing their thing.
Miller: What are you reading these days?
Matt: I use a library for two things. I’m in a guys’ book group and so whatever the book du jour is, I come and get it out of here or how-to stuff. I always come here for how-to stuff, whether it’s how to make wine or how to do your own taxes. That’s what I use the library for, a reference.
Miller: What’s your guys’ book group reading these days?
Matt: Yeah, we just finished “Americanah” which got me really interested in Nigeria. So I’m reading a second book which is a famous Nigerian book called “Things Fall Apart.” And our guys book group is mainly centering right now around African writing.
Miller: And does everybody in the group refer to it as the guys’ book group?
Matt: Actually the name of it is Moby Dicks.
Miller: Have you all read Moby Dick as part of the book group?
Matt: I have never read it. Now the person who runs it is an English chap who is a writer for a living. He more or less selects what we read. His selections are amazing. So he’s a writer. The rest of the guys in it are either English teachers or also authors.
Miller: What does it mean to you that your daughters are turning into readers now, too?
Matt: Honestly, I’m just relieved because I have three sisters and they all read like crazy. I was an ok reader. It just makes me overjoyed. I’m just just thrilled.
Miller: Are you gonna get anything today?
Matt: Yeah, I’m going to go up and I’m looking for a book on growing grapes.
Miller: That’s the next how-to thing for you?
Matt: Mhm. Yeah.
Miller: So, Mia, what did you find? You got a whole stack here?
Mia: Yeah. I have the books “Little House on the Prairie” and “Little House in the Big Woods” so I am just getting other books.
Miller: You got five other Laura Ingels Wilder’s books. Do you feel pretty confident about this choice?
Miller: What about you? What did you find?
Gracie: I found “April Fools, Mr Todd.””
Miller: Does it look good so far?
Miller: What are you reading at home right now that you like?
Miller: What are you reading?
Gracie: “The Mystery of the Yellow House,” I think.
Miller: It sounds scary.
Gracie: Kind of. Well, my sister read it and she said the only part that is scary is the part when there’s a storm.
Miller: A big storm.
Miller: Does it help if she can tell you what the scary parts are then ahead of time?
Miller: Do you like reading?
Miller: What do you like about it?
Gracie: I like fiction books and I like to see the magic in them.
Miller: Thank you.
Gracie: You’re welcome.
Miller: And there we are: The magic of books! I cannot think of a better way to end a tour of a library. Special thanks to Sean Cunningham and to everybody at the Central branch who let us roam around the library all day with our microphones. You can see pictures from our tour on our website, opb.org/thinkoutloud.
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