It’s strange to think of a library as having a crowd of regulars.
Bars have regulars. The barbershop has regulars.
Libraries have books.
There are certain mental snapshots stored in the mind’s eye, like generic stock images used by a greeting card company that couldn’t secure the rights to “The Peanuts,” or even “Garfield.”
They’re old-fashioned, quaint and no longer in any way relevant to the realities of life in a modern world — and yet nevertheless they remain best-sellers, ingrained in the brain, like an involuntary game of word association.
Library. Library book. Library book shelves.
Bottom line: It’s hard to imagine a world-weary face sauntering up to the circulation desk and asking for the usual.
And that’s by and large because there is no longer any usual.
Last October, Schlow Centre Region Library celebrated the 10th anniversary of its building on South Allen Street and in a column that appeared in the CDT commemorating the occasion (penned by this writer), staff members discussed how the library has evolved over the course of its long life and the role that it continues to play in the community.
“We’re a community center. I think that’s the focus of what libraries need to be,” said Anita Ditz, head of children’s services.
Over the past decade, Schlow has hosted tai chi classes, mother/daughter book clubs and writers’ groups, but the day-to-day routine of the staff has become increasingly intertwined in areas of tech support.
Patrons can schedule half-hour tutorials on how to use their iPads or troubleshoot problems with their smartphones.
“The questions are different. I don’t know that the community is different,” said Maria Burchill, head of adult services.
Librarians traffic in information, a commodity with inherent value that increases tenfold depending on the speed at which it is delivered.
Today, the world moves at a pace that it couldn’t have 10 years go. It’s smaller and bigger at the same time. National events, friendships, romances — they all play out on the screens of smartphones, tablets, maybe even a watch.
There was a patron at Schlow — let’s call him “The Regular” — who said that he’s had several near misses while walking on the sidewalk with fellow pedestrians whose eyes are fixated on their phones.
The Regular, who asked that his name not be used, doesn’t own a phone — or a computer. He has a tablet, he said, but its weak connection struggles to load even the most basic of websites.
Instead, he’s spent three or four days a week at Schlow since the building opened more than a decade ago.
In all that time he’s noted a set of familiar faces, like a regular set of extras populating the backdrop of a sitcom.
There’s the older gentleman who uses a computer to sell items on eBay, the guy who comes in once a week to read an Altoona Mirror newspaper, an international crowd watching their native television shows on YouTube.
“There’s a steady stream of hard on their luck people that come through here because there isn’t any other place to go,” The Regular said.
He used to work as a pizza delivery guy until he was struck by a drunk driver and left with injuries that make it difficult for him to work.
The computers at Schlow provide a social outlet. He plays games with people from across the world and sends emails to friends who scattered post-college.
“I wouldn’t have any other connection,” he said.
There’s also a case to be made for the minutiae — fragments of banal information that grease the wheels and cut back on the legwork.
Value is in the eye of the beholder. Nobody really cares about the fair housing prices on a specific street in Seattle — unless of course you happen to be moving there.
The Regular has no plans to leave State College, but he has on occasion needed to find the zip code for a friend of his father’s or help his mother decide which new car to buy.
“You can’t just drive around to all the dealerships again and again until the right car pops up,” The Regular said.
But the truth is that he could. One has to imagine the possibility of some nightmarish dystopia, years before the Internet, when Christmas shopping had to be done in an actual store and stamps were more than just a collector’s item.
And when people needed answers on the fly, they went to the library.