Blast from the past

Editor’s note: This column, originally published in 2003, was written in support of a Las Vegas-Clark County Library District bond issue. Although voters rejected the bond, I like this piece because it gave me the chance to report from my hometown of Huntington Beach, Calif. I’m re-posting it here as a tardy tribute to National Libraries Week, which I missed back in April because I was covering the 2013 Nevada Legislature.

May 20, 2003

Library journeys

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — The Main Street Branch of the Huntington Beach Public Library sits on a triangle-shaped lot, at the intersection of Main, Acacia and Pecan streets. It’s surrounded by small bungalows that today cost $500,000, just a few blocks up Main from the Huntington Beach Pier.

The building isn’t large, nor architecturally impressive. Patrons enter through a door framed with green marble, where a copper plaque announces the dedication in 1951.

The great room holds the stacks, a children’s library and tables for research. At the far end of the room is a floor-to-ceiling window that looks out on the lawn. It has that slightly musty smell that comes from rows of books mixing with humid salt air.

This library hasn’t changed much in the nearly 30 years since my mother would take my sister and me for regular visits, from which we would leave with a small stack of books. The old card catalog is gone, replaced by a computer. Books are scanned, not stamped, at checkout. There’s Internet access now. It all seems smaller.

But for me, this was never just a building.

It was a wooden ship, plying the Mediterranean Sea on journeys into Greek mythology. It was a detective’s office, as Frank and Joe Hardy gave way to Encyclopedia Brown’s practiced eye. It was the battlefields at Gettysburg, Bull Run or Antietam. It was an extension of the set of 1950s-era encyclopedias I had leafed through, cover to cover, at home, a budding geek even in those days.

For me, it was the world.

I thought of all those things Saturday as I returned to the library for the first time in more than a decade, preparing a piece about the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District’s push for a bond-and-tax plan aimed at building and staffing four new libraries, upgrading existing ones and adding an online service center.

So far, we’ve heard all about the cost: $51.6 million in bonds for construction, books, furniture and computers. And a 2.1 cent property-tax override for staff to run the new facilities.

We’ve heard about it because that’s what we do: Count the cost. Dollars and cents. How much, for how long, and what do we get in return?

It’s not usual to answer, we get the world. Or we could, if we would stop counting the cost long enough to consider the possibilities.

How many Las Vegas mothers will take their children to future branch libraries if the bond is approved? How many of them will find entertainment, or knowledge, or even inspiration?

As my simple library on Main Street proves, elaborate architecture and breathtaking art galleries aren’t necessary when there are plenty of books around. The district all but acknowledges past excess when it says in a prospectus on the bond that “the new libraries will not feature expensive, exotic interior or exterior features.”

Truth be told, those things wouldn’t hurt at all. Humans are animals, and like all animals, they respond to their surroundings. Put a man in church and he can’t help but gaze skyward. Put a man in jail, and he can’t bear to look up.

But there are limits to public largess, and something is better than nothing.

In this case, the something is four new buildings, located in areas that either have no library (the southwest and northwest parts of town) or have populations that can’t get around as easily (East Las Vegas). There’s a library planned for Mesquite, and a mini-Amazon.com-type warehouse from which lesser-used books will be zipped to branches at the request of patrons.

The cost? An average of $8.82 per $100,000 of assessed value, per year, roughly a third of the cost of a new book these days. Voters are indeed put upon, especially with an economy that can’t shake its lethargy and a proposed $1 billion tax increase pending in Carson City.

But there does come a time when citizens must ask themselves what kind of society they want: One in which education, access to information and shrines to knowledge are valued, or one in which those things are shunned to save a few bucks.

Even the Review-Journal, which urged a no vote on the library bond in Sunday’s newspaper, has been known to proffer libraries as a public benefit. An editorial in January noted that online Department of Motor Vehicles services were open to everyone: “The argument that those who lack access to the Internet would be disadvantaged doesn’t fly — they can dial in for free at virtually any library.”

Indeed, Internet use is among the growth areas for Las Vegas libraries. (There were more than 644,000 sessions last year alone, a 41 percent increase, and the library estimates that 70 percent of those users didn’t have a computer at home.)

For me, however, the vote doesn’t stop at dollars and cents, at bonds and tax overrides, or interest rates and construction schedules. It comes down to those early days, spent eagerly searching out new worlds in the musty stacks of that wonderful library on Main Street a few blocks from the ocean.

Everyone should be so lucky.

2 Responses to “Blast from the past”

  1. Adriana Martinez says:

    Thank you for writing this, Steve. My daughter gained her love of reading through our local library. If we ever visited Barnes and Noble, she knew I would never refused to buy her any book she asked for as I recognized the importance of reading and learning.My daughter is now an English major. Libraries are key to a community and it is too bad certain neighborhoods lack a library near them. They are certainly missing out…

  2. Carolyn Robins says:

    During the Fall election campaign, I spent an afternoon registering voters at the library on Green Valley Parkway. I registered only two voters but was amazed at the number of mothers bringing their children to the library. They came in empty-handed and left with stacks of books, just as you describe. I was excited to see that books and libraries are not a thing of the past.