It is 3:45 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, and the hottest, busiest place in town is not some trendy coffee shop, not a department store or grocery store, and not a neighborhood park, playground or sports facility.
It’s the Petaluma Regional Library.
A family of four, having just entered the building, instantly splits apart the moment the mother and three kids make it past the checkout counter. The younger kids rocket for the Children’s section, while the teen, catching the eye of a friend across the room, shouts a greeting. Reflexively, the mother shushes her exuberant progeny and reminds him they are in a library, only to be treated to a withering, and slightly pitying stare.
“This isn’t that kind of library, mom,” he says, and moves off toward his waiting companions.
Times have certainly changed since the days when stern librarians bullied patrons into terrified silence, when libraries resembled morgues with books more than the bustling community center it better resembles. A rough estimate of the current human population of the place — not easy to determine since the surging, chattering, book-browsing, computer-surfing, ever-shifting crowd keeps moving around — appears to be just around 100 human beings. Surprisingly, though, this is not considered an especially crowded Thursday at the library.
“Thursdays can definitely get busy, with our Homework Help Center open on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” says Branch Manager Joseph Cochrane. “But this is a little light. You should come on Wednesdays, when we have our Coder Dojo classes and First Lego league. That can be just plain crazy!”
A quick walk through the place reveals all of the usual sights one would expect to see: folks searching the shelves, others consulting the computer files, some seated at tables perusing books or laptops. But over in the area dubbed Teenspace, there appears to be an impromptu dance lesson going on, some lively, medium-level conversation, and a bit of exuberant video game-playing. Oh, right. There’s even a bit of actual studying taking place.
“I would say, within the last ten years or so, there has been a big shift, and libraries have become more than just a place to quietly study or check out books,” says Children’s Librarian Michelle Santamaria. “It’s become a kind of community center, where people can go to get information, where there are programs and services that fill in gaps. We have computers for people who maybe don’t have access to them. We have story times for kids. Or other things like poetry jams and movies and science programs.”
“When I first started here, it was a ghost town, in terms of how few teens used the place,” recalls Cochrane. “But now, we have so many teens using the library, we’ve started to get complaints from some of the older patrons who aren’t accustomed to any noise at all when they come to the library. Teens definitely study at a higher rate of conversation than some others do.”
Most libraries, he points out, would pinch themselves to have that problem.
“To have teens coming in, that means we’re connecting with the next generation of library patrons,” he says. “If you can’t do that, the library is a dead institution. But we seem to be doing it.”
To be clear, there are plenty of folks here today of all ages, and yes, most of the older folks seem to have taken up real estate at the opposite end of the library from the teen area. A pair of teen volunteers push carts up and down the aisles, while the large bank of computers is currently full.
PETALUMA AROUND THE CLOCK
This story is part 5 of a 10-part Argus-Courier series. Each week, we skip ahead a few hours, clockwise, moving from place to place and person to person, capturing the colorful details, conversations, and activities that make up an average day in Petaluma. Next week, in part 6, we jump to 6:00 p.m., for some Rush Hour time at the Petaluma SMART Train Station.
See all of the stories in this series here.