Waiting in the library line
On most Fridays, dozens of people wait outside the Durham County Library for its doors to open. But this Friday there are only a handful.
“Computers will be unavailable at the Main Library Friday March 23, due to an equipment upgrade,” a sign reads. “We apologize for the inconvenience.” Some turn away when they see these words.
I’m standing in the courtyard outside the main branch of Durham’s County library system. The inside is filled with books, but in a digital age, these tomes are not what draw most visitors. Down the street are the Urban Ministries homeless shelter and the women’s and children’s division of the Durham Rescue Mission. Today, fewer people than usual walk from these havens to wait in line.
“Not until two, not until two,” a woman mutters as another attempts to pull the doors open. It’s 1:45 p.m. She looks at me and says, “The computers aren’t working today if that’s what you’re looking for.”
This is not my first visit to the Durham Public Library. I’ve stood in this courtyard on four occasions. Usually, there’s a long line by quarter to two. Utter strangers strike up conversations, music blares from cell phone speakers and some people watch from their cars. I became intrigued by this atmosphere early this semester when I parked my car in a nearby lot while collecting documents at City Hall for a class assignment. I was surprised to see so many people waiting to enter a library during the workday.
I asked someone why no one was going inside and learned that the library did not open until 2 p.m.—the hours had been shortened on Fridays. I followed the crowd in when the doors opened noticed that most of them headed straight for the 27 computers available. Most who did not reach a computer waited for one.
On my next visit, I spoke to Gina Rozier, the library system’s marketing and development manager. She explained the library’s shortened hours were a result of budget cuts—a consequence of the economic downturn of recent years. Plans to increase the number of computers as well as other renovations— totaling $14 million—were delayed until 2015. Under the proposed renovations, funded by Durham County, there will be more than one hundred public computers at the main library.
Today, as I wait outside, I attempt to engage others in conversation while a black man in his mid-thirties laughs at me. We start talking and he says his name is Milton. When I tell him I am a Duke student, he jokes, “Your parents must have a lot of money!” Milton says he comes to the library often for the computers, but today, he’ll just sit, read and watch people outside.
“The library is fine; it ain’t nothing to do with the library, it’s just people hanging out,” Milton tells me. “People like senior citizens are scared to come out here,” he says, drawing my attention to the large proportion of young people who make up the crowd. I ask him whom else I should talk to. “That lady in the blue pants.”
She is the woman who warned me earlier about the dysfunctional computers. Her name is Teresa, and she does not come to the library just for the computers. Today’s “equipment upgrade” is no inconvenience for her.
“I read everything I can get my hands on,” she says, while cradling a stack of books. She’s the first in line. We continue waiting.
“Must be about time,” Teresa announces after a few minutes, and I notice it’s 2 p.m. A uniformed member of the security staff unlocks the doors. The few patrons who stayed after discovering the computers were unavailable shuffle in. Left bereft of more people to bother, I turn back to Milton, who chuckles at my questions. He won’t tell me his last name or where he’s from.
Walking toward my car, I run into Elizabeth, an 18 year old who’s perched on a stair railing with some friends. “I came here because the Internet is down at my house, but since [the computers are] not working here, we’re just hanging,” she says. She compliments my shoes.
It seems paradoxical that a library—one of the last bastion of books and the solitary act of reading—functions more as a social space for members of this small community. Yet, in the same way novels have for centuries drawn readers into imaginative worlds of fiction, the Durham County Library also provides its patrons access to new worlds—namely, the digital world. Most regulars have admitted to using the library computers to check their Facebooks (or simply to stay warm). Although today’s libraries are not what they once were, they are in many ways so much more.