Well-sheltered books need wheels

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Moving books is tough work, as any bookworm who’s changed apartments or even relocated a bookshelf across a room can attest. Tough enough that the library at one East Coast college has a scene of book-moving memorialized in stone, a relief sculpture showing people from a past century carrying and wheeling in wagons the library’s contents from an early, meager building to a proud new one.

The decorative theme on Minneapolis’s proud new Central Library is curiously rural: scenes of waving grass and deep forest are etched into windows (whose tall proportions echo the tall windows that were perhaps the nicest feature of the city’s dearly departed main library). Replacing that building on the same site meant moving millions of books twice—just the thought is enough to make your back hurt.

The city’s collectively owned books have a new permanent roof over their heads at last. A funny-looking roof it may be, but the books are now snug on their shelves, comforted by the smell of coffee and the pop of a well-contained fireplace fire.

Those books shouldn’t get too comfortable.

If the job of the Minneapolis Public Library were only to secure the city’s rich trove of printed matter in a fabulous warehouse, its work would have been done on May 20, the new Central Library’s opening day. But, even in the computer age, the library’s first duty is to get books in the hands of people.

Some cities with great new central library buildings benefit from more extensive transit systems than ours that readers can use to reach their books in the central library. In Minneapolis, putting books in hands means putting books on wheels: delivery trucks that bring books to branch libraries in neighborhoods, and bookmobiles that serve as rolling branch libraries throughout the city.

The board of trustees of the Minneapolis Public Library has sometimes taken its act on the road, holding meetings at community libraries. But even more than their trustees, the people of Minneapolis need their books to circulate into the neighborhoods.

The Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library also has a show on the road: a series of community meetings about the dire financial state of the city’s library system and what can be done to fix it. On June 5 at 7 p.m. the meeting will be held at Southeast Community Library, 1313 Fourth St. SE. Everyone who cares about the future of the city’s libraries, and particularly Southeast, ought to turn out. Call 630-6170 for more information.

The citizens of Minneapolis will help their library: witness the referendum’s results downtown or at great new neighborhood libraries like Bottineau.

This summer Seward Residents can show their support by helping to raise $15,000 to buy books for the East Lake library, which is closed for renovation. For each $25 donation, a bookplate with your name will be pasted into the front of a book in the East Lake collection. Send a check to the Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library, 300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN 55401 (put “Seward Friends” on the check). For more information, call 612-630-6170.

But branch libraries can only do so much. This city needs its bookmobile service back.

Years ago the Walker Art Center exhibited a life-size replica of a mobile reading room from the early years of the Soviet Union. If the Bolsheviks could operate bookmobiles in the midst of a civil war, a prosperous Midwestern American city ought to be able to put books on wheels too.

And actually, a prosperous Midwestern American city can. St. Paul, which beat the Bolsheviks by several years when it began bookmobile service in 1917, bought a new bookmobile last year and gave its old one to its Mexican sister city instead of its twin. By St. Paul’s count, 78,660 people entered what they call the “Bookmobile Branch Library.”

Once upon a time, Minneapolis too had a bookmobile, supported by neighborhood funds, with stops at places like Seward Towers East, the Como Student Community Cooperative, Pratt School, Riverside Plaza, and the Holmes Greenway apartments where older people live. But for a variety of stated reasons—mechanical failure, unsafe conditions for staff, and, most probably, insufficient funds—bookmobile service sputtered to a halt in late 2004.

Until it returns, the picture of moving books in Minneapolis is not ready to be proudly carved in stone but rather set in concrete—as in the concrete blocks, upon which sits the city’s bookmobile, in the front yard of our gleaming new palace of literacy.

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