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Petaluma Around the Clock: A very busy hour at Petaluma’s most happening spot

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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.

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.

Cochrane points out the faded carpet, now at least 40 years old, and says that the next fiscal year will bring a number of refurbishments to the library. Hopefully, new carpets, some dedicated study rooms with doors, and perhaps even a separate Quiet Space for those who prefer a little less “public” in their public library.

At 4:12 p.m., there is clearly one spot where it’s definitely still quiet.

That’s the area near the Teenspace where the Homework Help Center is currently under way. Children’s librarian Cailin Yeager is in charge of Homework Help, which happens Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30 to 5:30.

“We have a lot of kids coming in to do homework after school, either doing research on their own for reports, or to take advantage of the Homework Help Center,” she says. The service sees between three and twelve students every day it’s open. They work on their projects with volunteers, who primarily tend to be retired professionals. “It’s a great opportunity for people with a little extra time on their hands,” she says, “people who want to give back to the community. We’re so happy to have our volunteers.”

Currently, she points out, the Homework team includes a retired doctor, a retired chemist, and a retired engineer.

“For a while I had a retired lawyer, too, who will hopefully be coming back, after an injury,” Yeager says, quickly adding, with a laugh, “The injury didn’t happen at the library.”

Another increasingly important part of the library, says Librarian Celma de Faria Luster, is the Spanish Language Section, near the front the door and the friends of the Library book store.

“We have a completely separate adult Spanish section, and we are very dedicated to that,” she says. “We want to make it even stronger, to bring in more Spanish speakers to the library.”

Petaluma, she says, is home to many people from Central America, South America, and Spain. They appreciate having access to books of all kinds in their own original language. That said, for some people, the notion of a free public library is, well, a bit foreign.

“Many countries don’t have the resources or the tradition we have of a free library,” says Luster. “In some countries, you have to pay to use the library, or they are just associated with schools, or they don’t have them at all.”

At 4:48 p.m., many of the faces seen an hour earlier have been replaced by new ones. The sound of friendly chatter has not diminished, though.

“I think of the library as a community connector space,” says Cochrane. “The new generation of library users is definitely more into a gregarious scene, which is fine. We want everyone to be here. There can be a balance between the old and the new, and I think we are finding that here. Which is just good for everyone.”

(Contact David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)