Okay, I must admit that when I think of libraries, the image conjured (as stereotypical and dated as it may be) features cold, fluorescent lighting. Aisles upon aisles of books. The Dewey Decimal System. People hunched over dusty periodicals in an almost religious repose. The Quiet Police, also known as librarians. You get the picture.
So, when StoryCorps Door-to-Door visited our first 2012 Institute of Museum and Library Service (IMLS) National Medal Award winner, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. branch of the San Jose Public Library, I was both curious and excited to discover just how much the daunting public institution of my youth has evolved.
Located in the heart of downtown San Jose, the library’s facade resembles the other sleek glass and concrete office towers, but once inside it reveals it’s true identity: a community hub, campus hangout and epicenter for learning. One look out of an east wing window reveals sweeping mountain vistas, an old bell tower, and San Jose State University academic buildings, a landscape dotted with palm trees. Immediately impressed, I looked forward to meeting some of the folks who made this place special.
Fortunately, library administrators Jane Light and Ned Himmel set the record straight. The first sign that this wasn’t the library of my past came when Jane quoted Keith Richards: “The public library is the great equalizer.” Very cool.
Jane and Ned reveled in the good old days, when they met 35 years ago as “idealistic library science majors” at UC Berkeley. Ned recalled Jane’s early dedication to the idea of a public library. “I thought I wanted to be an academic reference librarian,” Jane said. “Once I got to library school, I realized the possibilities of public library work really changing people’s lives, a place where democracy was practiced. I knew this would be the most exciting place for me to be.”
Ned and Jane described how this truly unique, joint-use library, servicing both the city of San Jose and San Jose State University, impacts the community. “You can’t tell who’s a student and who isn’t a student. You see people of all different ages working away. This is a true meeting place of life long learning,” Jane marveled.
Heralded as an innovative model of service, patrons enjoy unparalelled freedoms at San Jose Public Library: self check-out, open areas where chatty clusters of students gather to eat and jabber away on their cell phones. It’s all encouraged. San Jose Public library is one of the first to allow food and drink. According to Jane, she frequently finds herself defending the library’s unorthodox approach to the naysayers.
“I laugh [and tell them] everything at our branch libraries circulates,” she says. “There are people, myself included, who’ve been known to read a book in the bathtub while drinking a glass of wine! Why can’t I do that at the library? What difference does it make? Right now people want convenience, and they want comfort. Why shouldn’t the library be a place where people come to enjoy themselves, to socialize, to learn, or just to be?”
The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awards The National Medal to five libraries and five museums for extraordinary civic, educational, economic, environmental, and social contributions to their communities. This award is the nation’s highest honor for museums and libraries, and StoryCorps is proud to record the stories of these distinguished institutions. Click here for a full list of this year’s winners.