By JOHN MARK EBERHART and JAMES A. FUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
At the front of the room, Taiwanese dancers twirled to lilting music, dipping and sliding as they rang tiny silver bells.
Watching from the back of Kirk Hall at the downtown library, Maribel Patterson washed down grilled chicken satay and vegetable spring roll with a sip of Merlot.
She shook her head. “Gee, when I was growing up, my library just had books. Things change, I guess.”
Few things have changed more than the public library. Once pigeonholed as a place for reading and reflection, modern libraries have busted out of their book-lined cage.
They have coffee shops and salsa dancing, script readings, film series, Ethiopian food tastings, alternative fashion shows and classes that teach everything from yoga and Pilates to chess.
In March, a Harry Potter band called the Remus Lupins flew in from the coast to perform at the Plaza branch.
“Not your grandmother’s library,” understated Henry Fortunato, Kansas City Public Library’s director of public affairs.
“When I was a kid, 20 years ago, I got kicked out of the library for misbehaving,” said Scott Douglas, author of Quiet Please: Dispatches From a Public Librarian. “Now libraries are becoming community centers. We still have designated quiet zones. But for the most part libraries are loud.”
Not everyone thinks this is a good thing. But librarians say they are responding to their customers’ demands.
And “customers” is the operative word. Libraries get little of their money from the federal and state governments, said Loriene Roy, president of the American Library Association.
“More than 80 percent of public library support comes from local funding,” Roy said. “Local communities pay the taxes and set the policies, so programming should be based on local needs.”
So DVDs, not books, are the No. 1 circulating item at the Basehor, Kan., public library. So what? So homeschoolers have made the Plaza branch their children’s school library? That works. So libraries everywhere are luring kids inside by offering video-gaming tournaments? Hey, maybe they’ll notice all those rows of books …
“I think libraries are realizing there is competition,” Douglas said. “Did you go to Borders and Barnes & Noble when you were a kid? No; they didn’t exist. Libraries are being forced to do what they are doing now.”
One hundred fifty years ago they were doing something different.
In 19th-century America, providing a setting for self-improvement through individual study was one of the public library’s missions. Few could afford a university education. For them, the library was tutor, guide, collective sage — “the people’s university.”
Sharon Moreland, director of the Tonganoxie Public Library, knows some library patrons worry that an institution once perceived as a citadel of learning is now viewed as, “Oh, yeah; we’ve got books, too!”
“But it’s not the reality,” Moreland said. “As our door count has gone up, our circulation has gone up, too. … The best libraries being designed now take both the traditionalists and the more modern way of thinking into account. They’ll have both quiet reading areas and places for teens to congregate and just be teens.”
Still, salsa dancing? If it brings people in, yes, indeed, said Sonia Smith, spokeswoman for Kansas City Kansas Public Libraries.
The KCK system’s Argentine branch offers salsa classes because “we have a lot of Spanish-speaking people who are patrons of the Argentine library. … It’s a well-attended program.”
And it’s a way to connect with a public that is still somewhat unaware that the local library has so much to offer.
All right, how about people eating and drinking in downtown Kansas City’s Central Library? Ethiopian cuisine? Wine tippling? Crosby Kemper III, chief executive of KC’s library system, just smiled at the question.
“We noticed we were not getting a lot of younger women in the library,” Kemper said. “So we tried out — successfully — something called Eclectic Eats. We invited three restaurants (Brazilian, Greek, Ethiopian). They each presented a history of their cuisine and restaurant, and they gave out some samples.”
Kemper said each event drew about 120 people, an excellent showing. This summer he hopes for a sequel.
“We’re going to do a program on Champagne — introduce people to the history of Champagne.”
It’s hard to argue with the notion that dancing is an art form or that cuisine and Champagne constitute cultural enrichment. But yoga and Pilates, even if you put them together and call them “yo-pi” — that’s just exercise, yes?
Jenne Laytham, assistant director of Basehor Library, makes no apologies. The library — which moved out of cramped temporary digs into a spiffy new building that opened April 28 — will offer the yo-pi class starting in June.
“We’re moving beyond serving the intellectual needs of our community,” Laytham said. “We’re also serving their physical and social needs.”
‘If we go too far …’
John Berry is editor at large of Library Journal. Founded in 1876, with headquarters in New York City, it’s the nation’s oldest library periodical, with a circulation of about 100,000.
Berry can’t quite find it in himself to buy into this new model.
“Yes, it’s great to have a free bookstore, a free department store, a free video store and something that resembles something down at the mall in your library. But libraries should be very wary of going all the way in that direction.
“If we go too far, the taxpayer is going to wake up and say, ‘I don’t want to pay my hard-earned cash to entertain the masses.’ That’s not what government is for.
“There’s a library in Cerritos, Calif., that’s like a theme park. As you walk in it’s coated in titanium and has sharks swimming around. It’s got everything.
They call it ‘an experience library.’ ” (For a link to information and photos of the Cerritos Library, check out
Berry said he remains optimistic that the core values of the public library — a place where knowledge is paramount — will be retained. But he can’t deny it: He’s worried.
So is Charles Henry, president of the Council on Library and Information Resources in Washington, D.C.
In one respect, Henry said, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of library as community center. In a digital age, isolation is a definite problem, with people tending to disappear into their own electronic chambers of cell phones, e-mail, the Internet, TV, iPods.
The library as gathering place could help by “reinvigorating society.”
“Democracy is built on dialogues and conversations and interactions among citizens,” Henry said.
But he sees little use for some things libraries are doing.
“If a library has a video game tournament and then talks about the strategies of game playing, the social impact of competition and the implications of violence, then that’s a smart library.”
But even that, Henry said, is “only marginally effective because it really doesn’t show the library to its full advantage or its higher purpose.”
There’s another peril to trying to be all things to all people: It just might leave you, your staff and your intended audience worn out.
Since Kemper became the Kansas City system’s chief executive in January 2005, folks in town have noticed the library’s scrappy new attitude. Programming has increased and has broadened in scope.
There are film series. Musical performances. Panel discussions on a wide range of subjects. In one respect the Kansas City system’s emboldened spirit, under Kemper’s leadership, is cause for celebration. Champagne, anyone? Oh wait; that’s this summer.
Kemper concedes the library has been doing a bit too much. In April alone, the system presented 43 events.
“We compete with ourselves a little bit,” Kemper said. “There are days we have a program at the Plaza and a program downtown.”
Library patrons, he said, will see fewer events beginning in June and July.
‘Dirty little secret’
If you don’t like the new public library model dominating the Kansas City area and the nation, try this: Get used to it, because it isn’t going away.
Book lovers may never love DVDs being the No. 1 circulating item at Basehor. While there are no figures yet nationally, the ALA’s Roy said she hears anecdotally that this is the case in many libraries.
“We get the best-selling movies, and we order multiple copies,” Laytham said. “Our audio books do well, too. We live in a location where a lot of people commute.”
Pedants might bristle, too, that the Basehor system allows customers to reserve DVDs and audio books online, then pick them up at the library’s drive-through window. Just like Wendy’s or Burger King.
Laytham, though, chooses to see the to-go-cup as half full. “You bring them in,” she said of today’s library patrons, “with these other things and programs. That’s probably our dirty little secret: You bring them in — and then they discover books!”
@ To see “10 reasons to go to the library this month,” and links to area libraries, their hours and programs, go to KansasCity.com/Entertainment.