It’s a Wednesday morning and Rebecca Boie sits alone in a sun-lit conference room at the corner of the Dorchester Road Regional Library.
The English Conversation Club, an hour-and-a-half practice session for new arrivals and anyone wanting to master South Carolina’s official language, is trying to rebuild an audience after a slow summer. The free session usually draws just a handful of learners speaking everything from German, Arabic, Japanese, Swahili, and the requisite Spanish.
Rebecca, a library assistant in the circulation department, took over the club from a former librarian who deliberately learned Spanish as an outreach tool for North Charleston’s growing Latinx community. She’s not a teacher, and she doesn’t speak any language other than English, but the goal of the time slot, she says, is to offer a non-judgmental space where people can casually work out the quirks of the English language.
“We had one lady, her children were already starting to attend school, and she came in and she was like, ‘Is ‘duh’ disrespectful?'” she recalled. “It’s the sort of thing you can’t look up, you know? Would that count as a disrespectful statement?”
Across the library, four women sit around a table cutting pictures from magazines and using sign language to communicate. Clara Singleton and two other teachers are there for Bettye Scott, a North Charleston resident interested in the Jehovah’s Witness faith. Singleton has driven from Mt. Pleasant to this branch for two years to host this Bible study for the deaf.
“Because it’s quiet, and with the deaf we use the pictures a lot to teach them,” she says. “We need to make copies — the machine is right there, and the surrounding is conducive to studying, so we chose here.
“And then it’s free,” Singleton adds. “We don’t have to pay for it.”
That remains one of libraries’ biggest selling points, so to speak, for Charleston County Public Library Executive Director Nicolle Davies, who will leave her post for Colorado at the end of this year.
With plenty of people jockeying for open table space, coffee shops and similar businesses have wised up in the past few years. Some have experimented with ways to discourage unlimited access to free Wi-Fi, either by limiting it to an hour or two or by simply leveraging the inertia of human interaction — having customers ask a barista for the password.
“We don’t ever block you out,” Davies said during an interview in her office at the Main Library branch on Calhoun Street. “We have Wi-Fi available all the time and we want you to spend the day with us. We’re not worried about you buying anything while you’re here.”
If that’s not enough, Charleston County’s libraries are about to get a lot more inviting.
In 2014, voters approved a $108 million referendum that raised annual property taxes by $18 for a $100,000 owner-occupied home for the sole purpose of revamping the area’s public libraries. Five new libraries will go up in total, two new ones and three to replace the Cooper River Memorial branch in North Charleston, the St. Paul’s/Hollywood branch, and the James Island branch. That last one is already under construction, along with a new, 40,000-square-foot branch meant to serve the growing North Mt. Pleasant area near Wando High School.
Both the new Mt. Pleasant branch and the replacement James Island branch are scheduled to open in late spring or early summer of 2019, but every single library in the county system will see a renovation of some sort.
“I think we did the right thing,” said Charleston County Council member Herb Sass, the legislative body’s library liaison. “We voted to let the people decide.”
While the mainstays will mostly remain the same — shelves full of novels, stands with periodicals, computer access — the facilities will adapt to a more demanding and technologically savvy public.
“Knowing that libraries have changed significantly over the last 15 years, we’re building these buildings with that in mind,” Davies says.
That includes experimenting with more attractive aesthetics, like panel windows that allow generous amounts of sunlight to filter through. It also means making sure that meeting spaces and conference rooms are readily available for students, young entrepreneurs, Singleton’s Bible study, or those “working from home,” a cohort that Davies says has significantly grown in the two years she’s worked in Charleston.
Still, luring the aspiring screenwriters and telecommuters takes more than a nice atmosphere. It takes a complete rethinking of what a “library” can be. The most extreme example is the state-of-the-art recording studio planned for the Wando-Mt. Pleasant branch. And on Sept. 25, the Board of Trustees updated the CCPL’s policy to allow patrons to bring food and drinks into the county’s libraries.
Not radical enough for you? Starting on June 20, CCPL eliminated late fees for books amid a growing movement to end the practice, which some say discourages low-income patrons from returning.
“The change in the overdue fine policy was implemented to eliminate any barriers for our patrons to use our libraries and to access the wealth of materials and resources available,” CCPL Digital Content Coordinator Sam Tyson told the City Paper at the time.
“We haven’t been shushing for 15 years,” Davies says, challenging another strain of what she calls the “antiquated perceptions” of libraries. “They’re not repositories of knowledge that are guarded and gated.”
That’s what Loida Garcia-Febo, the president of the American Library Association, hopes people understand about today’s libraries.
“Libraries are living organisms, and they’ve evolved to respond to the needs of the communities they serve,” she says.
In Pima County, Ariz., a library has nurses on staff that refer patrons in need to proper care. In Rochester, N.Y., libraries partner with local organizations that refer homeless patrons to various services. (In Charleston, the One80 Place shelter pops into the Main Library branch twice a month for a similar effort.) In Maryland, one library lends out baking pans. In Sacramento, Calif., another one lets patrons self-publish their books and a copy on the shelves for as little as $25.
Across the country, Garcia-Febo acknowledges that convincing the coveted adult demographic ranging from college- to middle-aged can be difficult when the internet and its sometimes dubious sources have largely replaced encyclopedias and reference desks. That’s why library-sponsored online services, like newspaper databases and even Consumer Reports, are used as bait, slowly drawing this inert audience from behind their laptops and into the physical realm.
“It’s a very interesting process to see someone who has not visited a library get into the materials online, and then end up getting to the library in person,” Garcia-Febo says. “It’s very interesting, and it’s beautiful.”
On a recent Thursday morning, the John L. Dart branch on upper King Street pulsated with life like a slow-beating heart. One by one, visitors who passed through the arterial doors in this small repository in the center of downtown Charleston’s North Central neighborhood left more enriched than they came. An older man in a bush hat was stuck in a very specific YouTube spiral of men shooting rifles at targets on computer six. Two rows away, a teenager wearing headphones stared intently at his screen, which faced DVD copies of The Greatest Showman and other recent releases available for check-out. A woman used the copy machine, and staffers circled the floor. The openness and accessibility of the place, a positive in almost every other respect, suddenly inspired a pang of anxiety about safety, a concern that was confirmed as I was writing this article on Thurs. Oct. 4, when someone emailed a library account threatening to shoot a branch, according to the Charleston Police Department. No specific library was mentioned in the email, but police presence was increased at all buildings. The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office took over the investigation on the same day, but said it had found “no indication of credible threats.”
You could say that libraries are making a comeback. From ruminations about growing up in them in The New Yorker, to op-eds extolling their virtues in the Times and nostalgia-tinged viral tweets about frequenting them as a child, brick-and-mortar bibliothecas are enjoying a renaissance in the public discourse. It’s interesting, even inspiring, that free knowledge centers are not under constant threat in a society that calls health care for the elderly an “entitlement.” Most libraries, a vestige of a time when knowledge extended as far as you could print it, have flown under the radar of even the stingiest governments, aided perhaps by their quiet, non-threatening nature or by the fact that they fall under the control of local governments and people like County Council member Sass, who has fond memories of a library bookmobile that used to stop by his neighborhood in West Ashley when he was a kid. His mom was strict about her son not watching TV on school nights, which inspired Sass to find other ways to distract himself.
“I became a pretty strong reader from that,” he says. “I think the library is an incredible resource for people.”
Maria Mack, a Mt. Pleasant resident who runs her own business, took notes in a table by herself at the John L. Dart branch. She says that her clients, most of whom are younger children, like the room to roam around and explore.
“I usually take my clients to libraries,” she says. “And if I’m ever near one, I usually try to do paperwork, ’cause it’s quiet, and it’s cool — not in my hot car.”
Coffee shops are often too loud, she says.
“If I can go to a library, I will.”