Larchmont Public Library
The Larchmont Public Library (LPL) has recently finished a major renovation. This has involved $1 million and nine months of construction. The renovations are a response to changing needs and uses of library patrons as well as addressing some structural flow problems. The library reopened for use on September 16, 2016.
I have used this library for about 15 years and am very conscious of the before and after. My observation takes into account my awareness of LPL’s past, the changes it has made, and what those changes suggest about who the target user is.
The old LPL was two buildings put together. The main building was two floors with a basement. The main entry opened into a large room with two wings. Each wing had periodical shelves along the walls, sofas and soft chairs. There was one catalogue computer terminal in one of the wings on a pedestal table. A narrow hall which housed the circulation desk, led to a large back room with the reference desk, and long tables with straight chairs and about 10 computer terminals. On the second and basement floors were the main collection of books, and one or two small rooms for tutoring. The attached building (the children’s collection) was two floors, and could be entered only through a staircase or elevator in the basement of the main building or through an outside door in the back of the attached building. The walls of the hall from the outside door into the children’s room were used for changing art shows of local artists.
The LPL did not invite in a consultant to do a needs assessment (based on conversation with Mark Hagarty, LPL Webmaster and cataloguer). They were pretty clear on what they wanted to change but they did consult with several architects and structural engineers to discuss what was physically possible and practical. I would note that the knowledge of the library staff for what were their users’ needs and the transformation of that vision into changes in the library environment, are a very clear example of the analog usefulness of people in this process. The changes made did not come from an algorithm, but from human interaction. They were a human evaluation of among other things, use of technology. I am reminded of Downey’s article that stresses the almost always necessary, though sometimes hidden input of human work, in navigating technology changes or uses.
Today the LPL is very different. When you walk in the front door, you still have a reading area to the left and right. The one to the left has soft chairs and small tables, all of which have outlets for laptops. The whole building has wifi. The room to the right is now a closed quiet room, with glass walls into the main lobby. It also has small tables with outlets. The circulation desk is still in the middle, but now includes the reference staff. The area behind the circulation desk, which used to be reference is a reading room with long tables, multiple computers, multiple outlets around the room and two glass walled room where groups can study together.
You can now get to the children’s room from the main lobby. Bathrooms were put in on the first floor.
On the second floor, more rooms with glass walls have been built for groups to meet for academic or social reasons. All of the “study” rooms have tables with chairs. On the surfaces of the tables are outlets for laptops.
LPL has a Face book page, a twitter feed and a website. It has programs for all ages all the time. Various events repeat i.e. there is a mahjong group that meets every Thurs at 11. There is an SAT prep group that meets on Thurs at 5. There is a children’s story hour every Tues at 9. There is a Sat afternoon movie, and a Sun afternoon “meet the author”. There are also monthly events on any and every topic; money management, parenting for special needs children, learning how to play bridge, and on and on.
The LPL seems to be doing a rather good job at being what Lewis calls a “third place” or “third space”, that is a place that is not home or work. Lewis writes about academic libraries, but there are parallels with this community library. The library “wants to provide a variety of spaces that match the variety of ways” community members” do their work- quietly and privately, in groups, with their own technology, and with technology supplied by the library.” ( Lewis, p.93) The LPL is doing this. The technology access is there, and the various spaces to study with others, or study or read by yourself But a third space is more than just rooms and access to technology. Lewis draws on the works of Oldenburg to elaborate. The third place is the place that is not home or work, where you feel comfortable, an “informal public space”. It is a “neutral place”, where you” can freely come and go”, you can go there and” find acquaintances”, you can become a “regular”, it’s a place that isn’t fancy but comfortable. The third place roots “people in a space where they can feel belonging, ease and warmth” (Oldenburg, p. 26)
And yet, how welcoming is this “third space”. If you do not live in the Larchmont zip code, how welcome are you? You might have a library cards from another Westchester town, but not a LPL card and so you will not be able to use the internet (use is linked to library card number). Larchmont has no low income or medium income housing (and has been sued by the state for this). This is a library for its community and it excludes others. This is seen in many ways. LPL expects its users to come in with laptops or be computer facile and does not have resources if patrons are not (it expects “information literacy” and laptop ownership). Notice the reference desk, which used to help with computer searches, has now gotten much smaller. This plays into the dynamic that Pawley notices “policies to promote “literacy” have systematically worked to render some groups of people-indeed the majority-less capable of active information use and knowledge construction than an educated elite”(Pawley, p.425) This library seems to be upholding the isolation of the educated elite (which is its community). The person who uses this library is supposed to be tech knowledgeable, is expected to be interested in programs on “money management”, and is expected to appreciate the “Staff monthly book picks”. The library in this instance is reinforcing the elite power dynamic, which is its community, to keep out those who are not of this community. There will be no “information diffusion” there is not even an attempt at this, by the elite, downward to “everyone else” (Pawley, p.434). The knowledge stays inside the library, which stays inside the community, and the other is not welcome.
- Downey, G. J. (2014). “Making media work: time, space, identity, and labor in the analysis of information and communication infrastructures” in Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, eds. T. Gillespie, P. Boczkowski, and K. Foot. Cambridge: MIT Press, 141–165. https://gdowney.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/downey-g-2014-in-gillespie-t-et-al-eds-2014-making-media-work.pdf.
- Lewis, David. Reimagining the Academic Library. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016
- Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through The Day. New York: Paragon House, 1989