Thursday, December 04, 2003

The Communal Space of Ciabatta Bread

"The library is located just down the mall from the food court," the security guard tells me as he finishes his Subway" steak-and-cheese on ciabatta bread and puts down his Starbucks coffee cup. I thought the library was public space and yet the mall's security guard governs it. Is the library really public space? Or is it more like the food court: commercial space posing in sheep"s clothing.

In her criticism of mega-bookstores, Fialkoff confirms the position of the public library in the emerging quasi public/commercial literary venue: "The superstore has no mission other than profit. The library"s mission is to give people what they want, as well as what they don"t know they need, and what they can"t afford themselves." (Fialkoff, 1999 pg. 36). Fialkoff"s words don"t reassure me that the library is a true public place. I'm sure that the mission of the food court is quite similar: "give people what they want" and "what they don"t know they need." Of course, if a food court patron can"t afford a particular item, the steak-and-cheese security man is readily available.

Libraries have purposes other than those mentioned by Fialkoff. We could revisit Dervin"s taxonomy of "helps" for guidance but I'm far more inclined"given the late hour and my general state of preparation"to look to my local library for inspiration. When I visit the branch library I generally see people I know or at least recognize. I know where to find everything and I'm reassured by the friendly faces of the familiar librarians. I even find some solace in the handbills posted on the bulletin board because they"re all from my neighborhood: Landon Library is an integral part of Wortley Village. To borrow the words Laura Miller applied to independent bookstores, Landon "reflects the particularities of its community" and is "seen as a bulwark against homogenization." (Miller, 1999)

Unfortunately, I don"t get this same feeling from the main library downtown. And it"s not just the smell of the food court.

As the library enters this bizarre land of commercial/public/communal discourse about sanitization and homogenization, I have to wonder: where are the people? What are they doing and what do they want? If bookstores are places for socializing, do people go to the library to score?

Miller continues:

"In the bookstore, with its self-selected clientele, singles on the look-out know that not withstanding the bookstore's claim to serve the entire community, the others they meet are likely to be fairly similar to them in education and income, and at least share an interest in reading." (Miller, 1999 pg. 399)

In its drive to truly serve the entire community (unlike the bookstores) perhaps the library has become too general and too homogenized. Whereas some bookstores are white ("The Chicken Soup for the Soul Boutique") and others are black ("LiterXXXure"), libraries are just interminable shades of gray. And who really wants to associate with uniformity?

Perhaps library administrators should do away with the Dewey Decimal System and incorporate classification systems that people can identify with. Standing under the "700-740" with a lidded beverage probably isn"t as significant for socializing as standing under the "Gothic Vampire Temptress" sign while holding a triple-mocha latte with extra cherries.

As I leave the steak-and-cheese security man in the food court, I have to wonder what Starbucks flavour he was drinking. Is there a sign in the library that he would willingly stand under?


Fialkoff, F. (1999). Mimicking the Library. Library Journal, 124(3), 136.
Miller, L. J. (1999). Shopping for Community : the transformation of the bookstore into a vital community institution. Media, Culture, and Society, 21, 385-407.


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