The Universal Notebook: What have they done to my library?

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The last thing I did when I worked at the Portland Public Library was to help with the move from the old Baxter building to the new building on Monument Square in 1980.

The modernist main library, designed by Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson & Abbott of Boston, got old fast. Thirty years later, it’s just undergone a $7.3 million face-lift and I hardly recognize the place.

My first impression from across the square is that Scott Simon Architects has added wrap-around green-tinted sunglasses to the flat white face of the library. My second is that they have turned it into an airport terminal, great white trusses behind soaring green glass. But up close, the renovated library has a wonderful urban streetscape, people sipping coffee and working on their laptops in the new atrium café.

Inside, visitors are greeted by a bank of 32 computers for public use, a dramatic new flying staircase leading from the street floor to the floor above, large hanging light fixtures like outsized Chinese lanterns, and a view down into the grand, new art gallery space. Great stuff. I just wish they had mounted artist Frederick Lynch’s abstract “Seven Sentinels” on a wall where you could see them without craning your neck.

The renovation and redesign of Portland Public Library has indeed turned it into “a resource-rich community center.” I’m not sure, however, that it is still a serious reference and research library.

Back in 1980, we discovered that the new library had less shelf space than the old, so we ruthlessly chucked out tons of government documents and drastically weeded the circulating collection. Then we spent a small fortune on paperbacks to fill the new carousel display shelves in the lounge area.

Now in 2010, most of the library’s government documents and back issues of periodicals are in storage in a warehouse out on Reed Street. You can go online easily, but you may have to wait a day or so for documents. You’re also likely to have to wait to view newspapers on microfilm.

I went to the library the other day to do some research in old Portland newspapers and ended up waiting a half hour for one of the three remaining microfilm readers to become available. I swear I remember one of those antiques from the Baxter building in the 1970s. And the placement of the banks of microfilm cases and the three readers is not ideal, jammed as they are into a corridor outside the local history room, but that (and the dead space on the third floor now filled with unused study carrels) may be remedied in a planned Phase II renovation of the upper floors.

The major problem with the all-things-old-are-new-again Portland Public Library, however, is that it isn’t open enough. It’s only open five days a week for a mere 42 hours. You’re not serious about providing a vital public service if you’re only open 42 hours a week.

Bangor Public Library, for example, is open six days a week for 60 hours. Lewiston Public Library is open six days a week for 57 hours. Boston Public Library is open seven days a week for 68 hours. As a major urban institution, Portland Public Library should be open 9 to 9 Monday through Thursday and 9 to 6 Friday and Saturday, a total of 66 hours.

Library officials, faced with another year of flat funding from the city, are now talking about closing the Munjoy, Reiche and Riverton branches to save $160,000. What they should be talking about is where to find the money to, at the very least, keep the Main Branch open Mondays.

What’s the point of investing millions of dollars to revitalize a public resource that the public can’t use on Mondays? Even the Portland Museum of Art is open more hours than the library. The old crate looks great. Now get it working.

Sidebar Elements

The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal look at the world around him.