By Seth Buikema
Discussion of public libraries in the mainstream media is often grim and uncertain. Taken for granted, these public spaces are often seen as antiquated places where a select handful of folks check their reading out for the week or bring their kids along as a form of educational enrichment. However, in analyzing what public space is and where it manifests itself, the public library holds a unique position as the intermediary between the digital and physical publics for people who would otherwise have no other means of connecting to the Internet. Furthermore, these spaces provide important social programming and educational materials for free. These aspects of public libraries make them one of the strongest cases for democratic public space, as the library’s goal is to further educate and socialize its patrons.
The Merriam Park library serves the Merriam Park neighborhood of Saint Paul, as well as other areas nearby. While not a large library, it still provides many of the services expected of a library, such as books and other media for check out, computers for patrons to use, and a paid copier. The library has also made some adjustments for COVID, such as a large hold section placed in the front of the building, and a grab-and-go cart situated in front of the building. Further library services include interlibrary loan with libraries in the Twin Cities, as well as access to an online language learning service that teaches over 90 languages with a valid library card. The ways in which people use these services can tell us a lot about the reason they use them and whether or not the goal of educating and socializing library users is coming to fruition.
There were a few main activities that people participated in while using the space. These are browsing for and reading books, using the computers in the library, communicating with librarians, and working as librarians. Patrons who browsed for books often spent a shorter amount of time in the library than people who were using computers. This is in part, as I experienced myself, because it may be the best place for someone to do work, as it has a stable internet connection, access to a computer, is relatively quiet, is free to use, and does not require a library card. Checking out books, on the other hand, only requires a library card and the ability to browse or ask for books, and often those who are simply browsing spend less time in the library than those using library computers. Another contributing factor to this trend is that the spaces for reading in the library are not as actively designated for reading as the areas with computers are.
Once you step inside the library, you enter a small atrium with information about current library programming, such as outdoor and teen book clubs. In this area, there are also a few different local newspapers of various political alignments, which serve as sources of local information. Once you are through the next set of doors, the rest of the library is at your fingertips.
The Saint Paul Public Library system is operated and owned by the city of Saint Paul. It does, however, receive funding from non-profit organizations like The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library. The Merriam Park Library in specific was originally built in the 1930s, made possible by a local resident’s estate. The building that stands today, at the Northwest corner of Marshall and Fairview Avenues, was built in 1993 after the prior building began to sink. Budget-wise, the library system receives about $20.5 million dollars each year.
Among the many activities that take place at the Merriam Park Library, the most common is simply browsing for books. Almost all of the books within the library are for people who are able to read English and are not visually impaired. The only foreign language books are either for children or aimed at people learning those languages. Furthermore, the linguistic representation within the Merriam Park branch of the library misrepresents the community, as many of the books are in Spanish, French, and Chinese, and while that reflects the wealthier nature of the neighborhood (as people have the time resources to be learning languages), Chinese and especially French do not represent members of the wider community. The Saint Paul public library publishes books in languages that are underrepresented in the region’s libraries, such as Karen, Amharic, and Oromo, but I was unable to find any books in these languages at the Merriam Park branch. There is a smattering of films in other languages, however many of them are in Japanese or French, both of which, again, do not meet the needs of minority language speakers in the Twin Cities.
As far as affordances for people with disabilities, the building itself is ADA compliant, with an elevator to the basement where meeting rooms are located, as well as push-button doors at the entrance. However, within the rows of bookshelves, it would be hard for a wheelchair user to browse freely due to the narrow rows as well as the height of the bookshelves. This lack of physical accessibility is partially made up by the fact that librarians are able to recommend and retrieve books for patrons. Even still, the ability to browse freely is not available to wheelchair users.
There is adequate space for all ages of people within the library, with a dedicated children’s section, as well as an area that may serve as a section for teenagers, although this is not clear. The children’s section has furniture that is sized down for its target audience, with low tables and chairs, as well as lower bookshelves. There is also a computer for kids to use in this section of the library.
The library makes accommodations for those who are physically unable to gather books within the library while not making the experience completely accessible, but it does quite a poor job of making materials available to people who do not understand English proficiently. It is generally accessible to an average person, as there is adequate signage throughout the library, and the system of organization is not too difficult to figure out.
This branch of the library is managed by the city of Saint Paul. There are almost always three or four librarians throughout the library, one or two at the desk and a couple of roving librarians helping shelve books. Supposedly the purveyors of shushing throughout the library, the librarians make the most noise out of anyone in the library on most occasions. However, they seemed to be quite helpful, showing people to certain books or sections in the library. Librarians also are patrons intermediary for interlibrary loan, as I saw a man ask for a CD copy of Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam, which the librarian had to order from Minneapolis. There is no means of security within the library other than sensor detectors at the doors to ensure no material is being stolen. The Saint Paul public library system has, however, done away with library fines, making the lending system even more open to the city’s residents and further encouraging reading. The most regulation I encountered was while using the library’s internet connection, as they had a lengthy terms-of-service agreement about what kind of content you could access. As far as visual management, the space is very welcoming, with signs designating COVID protocols, as well as signs encouraging children to connect with the garden planted outside of the children’s section.
While at first glance the Merriam Park branch of the library seems inclusive, that may not be the case. This is because in order to check out books, patrons are required to register for a library card, which requires you to have a photo I.D. as well as proof of address, which may be hard to attain for undocumented or homeless people. That is the main inclusivity drawback, besides the aforementioned lack of non-English resources. The library has bus service right outside its doors, thus including those who would otherwise have to access the library by car. Furthermore, the recent no fine policy includes those for whom paying a fine is a possible barrier to engagement with the library. This policy is important as it takes financial stability out of the equation when someone considers using the library system.
Overall, when evaluating the attributes of publicness in this space, I reckon that it is quite public for those that are fully enfranchised within society. However, people for whom everyday affordances are not made will definitely encounter some problems when trying to use the library system, but not necessarily when just being in the library as a public space.
In order to better understand the elements of publicness of the Merriam Park Public Library, one can view the space through the lens of the OMAI model. This model categorizes and quantifies qualities of publicness that I have explained above, made succinct with their ratings here. This link will explain OMAI in greater detail.
- Ownership: 4 – Fully owned by the city of Saint Paul.
- Management: 3 – Online restrictions, which in some cases could censor perfectly acceptable websites.
- Accessibility: 3 – Browsing not easily accessible for wheelchair users, language barriers.
- Inclusivity: 2 – Library card needed to interact with check-out system, Few books if any for non-English speakers at an appropriate level in languages common in the Twin Cities.
The fate of our public institutions is not clear, and the library seems to have an even looser grasp on what the future holds for it. Library use in the eyes of the public seems to dwindle even as it serves one of the most important roles in our society for those who cannot afford to have a computer in their own home by providing free internet access, as well as a deep well of knowledge for the majority of people to pull from. Oftentimes people forget that the library doesn’t solely serve as a source of information either, as social programming and other services are available to the general public. Whether or not this is going to spring back after the COVID-19 pandemic is a question that has yet to be answered. However, it seems that people are returning to the library, as when I studied it, there was never a time when I was the only person in the building besides the librarians. People rely on the services of the library. Continuing to keep those services as fundamental parts of a public space, with a few adjustments to include a wider public, can help to make a more democratic society.
All photos by the author.