A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life. ~ Henry Ward Beecher.
When Norfolk’s new Slover Library opened earlier this year, the response from the community was generally enthusiastic. But not everyone was impressed. Some critics argued that the city had far more pressing needs and should not be spending money on an institution that is “obsolete.”
“The internet has made libraries irrelevant,” read one typical Facebook post.
At first glance, such comments make sense. Whether you’re looking for information on the Civil War or chili recipes, you can usually find what you need with just a few clicks on your computer. If you want to read a book, moreover—whether for pleasure or research—Amazon has them all; and if you own a Kindle or similar device, you can get many books instantly.
So why do we still need libraries?
Well, for a variety of reasons.
First of all, libraries are the ultimate equalizers—symbols of democracy in a country supposedly dedicated to that idea. For people who can’t afford computers, libraries are godsends—places where a million tools of learning, including computers with internet access, are available free of charge.
Second, libraries are staffed with professionals. I should know. My father was a librarian in the New York Public Library system, and while I was growing up I found myself having to explain constantly that he wasn’t a person who stamped your book at the checkout desk. He selected the books and other materials that ended up on the shelves, based on his vast knowledge of subjects from anthropology to zoology, and his ability to distinguish between quality information and junk. And when patrons came to him for guidance, he would steer them toward the information they were seeking while also suggesting additional resources that would never have occurred to them. Indeed, one could argue that librarians are more important today than ever. The internet, after all, is a paradoxical entity. Its very vastness can often lead to confusion rather than enlightenment. Which sources are credible and which are not? Professional librarians can help you answer that question.
One could argue as well that not just librarians but library buildings are more important today than they ever were. The library is a consummate “third place,” to borrow a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg—a place where people from all walks of life can come together and strengthen the bonds of community.
“Libraries have changed drastically in the last decade,” Norfolk Public Library System Director Sonal Rastogi observed recently during a telephone interview. “More than ever, they are places to congregate—places that offer opportunities for civic engagement. We are capitalizing on that trend.” Indeed, the sixth floor of the new 138,000-square-foot facility on Plume Street is dedicated to this purpose entirely, with rooms for receptions, special events and meeting spaces for businesses and non-profit organizations.
There are two ways to enter the Slover Library: through the old Seaboard Building, a gorgeous neoclassical structure that housed portions of the downtown library’s collection after Kirn Library was demolished in 2008, or through the new building, with its soaring light-saturated atrium. The juxtaposition of these two contrasting entrances is powerfully symbolic. It suggests both an abiding respect for traditional libraries side-by-side with a willingness to adapt to changing times.
Given my fondness for tradition, I entered through the Seaboard side during my first visit and browsed through the stacks of books that remain housed there. Then I quickly began exploring the newer building, which was designed by Newman Architects. Recently the company was honored for excellence of design by the American Institute of Architects and the American Library Association—and after a quick self-guided tour of the new space I understood why. Everything about it is both tasteful and welcoming. The spacious ground floor includes displays of books, a checkout desk and a small gift shop.
Directly facing you as you enter is also a wide, blond-wood staircase that calls you to the second and third floors. You can enter the Seaboard building from the upper floors as well, and gain access to the invaluable Sargeant Memorial Collection, which contains a wealth of information about Norfolk’s history. While it remains housed in the more traditional space, however, some of its features are very high-tech. They include massive touch screens on which you can view floating digital copies of historic city photographs; one swipe of the hand, and they enlarge; another touch of the finger, and information about the photograph pops up.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the second floor you’ll find the youth library, a “KidZone” with a play area, and an art studio.
The third and fourth floors are even more high-tech, with a digital media lab, a 3D printer, and a digital production studio, complete with camera and green screen. (A green screen, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, allows you to shoot something in front of it on video, then superimpose images behind what you’ve videotaped.)
Perhaps most surprising—and potentially controversial—is the main feature of the fifth floor: a video gaming room. It came as no surprise when I was there on a recent Saturday morning that this was the most crowded room in the entire facility. In an age in which fewer and fewer young people read books, it seems ironic for a library to provide videogames, but I suppose if it gets kids and teenagers into the building at all, that’s not entirely a bad thing. Moreover, I can see how this would be useful for single parents who need to use the library for more serious purposes. Drop the kids off in the gaming room, and go about your business.
The top floor—the “community engagement space”—houses a large meeting room with a lectern, and smaller rooms equipped with tables and video screens. As a rule I despise meetings, but the rooms are so inviting that it almost makes me want to think of a reason to book one of the spaces.
Technology at Slover
The value of Slover goes beyond the new physical space. I learned that I can use my card to access e-books, audiobooks and streaming videos from home—not to mention the book catalogue, to make sure a book is available before taking the trouble to go down there.
If you don’t have access to a computer and wifi, however, you’ll find that once you do enter the building searching for what you need could not be easier. Computerized card catalogues have replaced the cabinets long ago, but Slover takes library users to a new level, with touch screens built into the book shelves that make a title or author search easier than ever before.
Fascinated as I was by all the technology, I worried that there might be too much of it. I still believe in the value of printed book and was concerned that many books might have been displaced to make way for all of this other stuff. Fortunately, I found an ample collection still intact—which is rather dangerous for a bibliophile like me.
All of this illustrated for me Slover’s diverse appeal. If you’re a traditionalist, you’ll continue to find an ample selection of books—160,000 volumes in all—and comfortable chairs in which to read them, as well study rooms for more dedicated research. It was gratifying to see in the KidsZone some young children reading picture books. The great irony is that many patrons will use the library without ever looking at a printed book—and I’m not so much of a curmudgeon that I will complain about that. After all, whatever fuels the diffusion of knowledge is a good thing.
I would be remiss if I didn’t pay tribute to the late Frank Batten Sr., former publisher of The Virginian-Pilot, who, with his wife Jane, made all of this possible. The Battens donated $40 million. The library was named in honor of Samuel L. Slover, founder of the Pilot, who helped raise and mentor Batten after his father died.
Read this article in full in the August/September issue of Coastal Virginia Magazine.