It wasn’t quiet, like it was when I was a kid. It wasn’t dusty or old, or filled floor to ceiling with books, the way I usually like. It wasn’t surrounded by lush green trees on a university campus, or across the street from the Capitol Building, like others of its kind I have found and loved. It was a library completely different than all of these things, and yet I was like a kid on Christmas morning waiting in line for an hour for my fancy new Silver Spring Library Card. Kids were squealing at seeing their school friends in line, parents were making plans for play dates, people were speaking Amharic and Spanish, and librarians were handing out free library bags while we waited.

What I hadn’t quite realized was that this excitement was not just the buzz of novelty, but rather the deep joy of a community upon a delivery of a promise.

But too many people see opening a library as making a choice in the culture wars. Should a library have print books or electronic resources? Should it be primarily a research space or a community center — and if it is the latter, how much should librarians act as social workers for the community? Answering these questions is tough if and only if we insist upon seeing them as incompatible choices. After all, print books are dead, aren’t they? But can they be, if even WIRED catches our eyes with titles like “Why the Smart Reading Device of the Future May Be…Paper?” If there are list-driven articles about college students preferring physical textbooks and people concerned that amazon can take their ebook rights at any time, can physical objects we securely hold actually be dead?

But libraries can be more. Just like the books inside them, a library itself can tell many stories — even some that seem to contradict each other or puzzle us, the audience. Libraries can provide media of the past, present, and future for storytelling, and it is in this that Silver Spring saw the potential for a new facility.

Silver Spring Library opening

Manic grin at the lines for the Silver Spring Library opening

This library was the culmination not just of a new library building project, but also of a vision for a place. This place, Silver Spring, right on the outskirts of DC, was digging back in its roots to recreate itself, and the library was a big part of this re-envisioning. It would be a place not filled not just with storybooks, but also with the story of an engaged citizenry willing to fight for the continuation of their way of life.

And so it has been and so it will be: Libraries are dead; long live libraries!

The History

The only thing Muhammed Jamal ever wanted to see built in downtown Silver Spring was a place to buy a good cup of coffee, a cozy bookstore and maybe a hardware store — all in the town center of one of the most liberal, eclectic and racially mixed communities in the Washington area.

Jamal’s dream, printed in an article in The Washington Post from August 13, 1995, illustrated Silver Spring’s problem. Residents of Silver Spring were caught between a rock and a hard place. The area was in disrepair — unsafe, with businesses leaving as quickly as they came without much fanfare. So, when the creators of the Mall of America made a proposal to develop the area, the region had a choice. Either they could let the economy and safety of the area continue to decline without business investment, or let “The American Dream Mall” come in and obliterate the local, urban style of the place.

Another resident of Silver Spring, Pat McPherson, laments the decline of the area in the same Post piece:

Pat McPherson, 42, grew up in Silver Spring. She fondly recalled going downtown, shopping at the Hecht’s and McCrory’s stores, watching Walt Disney movies at the Silver Theater and eating ice cream at Giffords.

But after the Wheaton Plaza shopping mall was built in the 1960s, she never went to downtown Silver Spring again. She remains in Silver Spring with her husband and two teenage children because, she said, it is the “real world. . . . It’s diverse, it’s poor and rich, it’s urban and small. It’s everything,” she said.

When she heard about the American Dream, she “felt very hurt,” but she said this may be the chance the downtown has waited for.

But what could be done? Silver Spring was important to its residents, sure, but its deterioration was also troubling to the surrounding area. Perhaps this new mall would be a new chance in one fell swoop for Silver Spring, and could be a success the way the revitalization of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor was in the 90s. However, it was the instant success in one package that frightened residents. Would it fundamentally change the urban, multicultural nature of their community? Would local businesses ever be welcome if the public spaces only existed within an enclosed mall?

A lot of locals decided that it was too risky, but what could the people of a large unincorporated area do? Silver Spring is governed by the county around it, not by its residents alone. Happily, for people like Jamal and McPherson, the fix was for the people to get involved. They posted yard signs, they joined groups like Citizens for Sensible Development, which numbered 4,000, and they convinced their leaders that this mall would be more attractive to tourists than residents of Silver Spring. And, as it turned out, the politicians eventually agreed, and the community was able to draw in the development it knew it needed.*

But still, like Thomas Jefferson, the people were not satisfied with life without books — though, more like Benjamin Franklin, they decided a more useful library could be built by pooling resources and avoiding crippling Jeffersonian debt.

The New Society: Let’s Create a New World of Libraries

Pew Research Data shows that libraries are alive, and, if not well due to recession era funding cuts, still essential to communities. Libraries educate our kids, they provide internet access to job searchers and underprivileged communities, and they increasingly have event spaces and comfy chairs built into their design. This attachment to libraries may seem odd to anyone having recently read articles about how we should abandon libraries in favor of unlimited Kindle subscriptions, but perhaps not so odd to those who have heard about amazon’s new “brick and mortar” bookstore in Seattle.

Silver Spring’s library aims to serve these multiple functions in its new facility. It possesses 100,000 books — double its previous size — in addition to a wide array of digital resources, from computer labs to 3-D printers, from iPad lending resources to the (totally awesome!) automated conveyer belt for book returns. It will have a cafe, and someday may even have a new light rail line running through its main plaza. But what I saw on opening day was not excitement over the quantity of books or the sophistication of the technology: it was the excitement of a people coming home to who they once were, to who they wanted to be.

What is it about people — not just the highly educated people of Silver Spring — but people in general, that makes them go to libraries? To get on waiting lists for story time hour at the library? That makes them admire writers like J.K. Rowling not just for their wonderful stories, but also for their ability to remake themselves by creating alternate worlds in words?

We go to libraries because we love stories. We love stories so much, that even when we are told as children that the Bible tells us not to gossip (Proverbs 21:23), we ignore it, because without gossip, there would be no stories. Without the framework of hearing our relatives kvetch over the behavior of other relatives and friends, without experiencing the delight of having secrets with your best friend, without stories to frame our daily experiences, we are unable to be fully human. Without stories, how would children understand that understanding the world isn’t about memorizing a series of facts? How would they boast of their accomplishments at Little League games, enhancing their performance to a captive audience of adults and younger siblings?

As children, we are taught simplistic stories, that history takes a straight and narrow line. We learn that the intrepid discoverer Columbus charted a new course of history by claiming America for Europe, that George Washington was a noble man who never lied, that a parallel line never intersects with another parallel line. But if we stuck to these simple accounts, we would never discover the culture of Native Americans, never be able to enjoy seeing Washington on stage in the musical Hamilton as a man willing to lie to the British — and kill them, to boot — to save his country, never learn the bizarre applications of non-Euclidian geometry in curved space.

There is merit to these simple stories that give us a foundation for future learning, but alongside simple stories and equations, at least according to Einstein, there must be fantastical tales. He advises parents: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” (This maxim, by the by, could easily be the inspiration for parents lining up at the library — even those whose greatest ambition for their children is for them to go to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale.)

But to learn and think and one day go to college with the help of stories of all kinds, those from history and politics and mathematics and literature, one only needs books, not public books. One should be able to learn just as easily from purchases at a bookstore.

In the age of amazon, why do we need this central space and co-owned books? Why did Jamal even want a brick and mortar bookstore, rather than a monthly allowance for online book buying? Would Thomas Jefferson ever have parted with his books, sending them back to the public, if he had the money to buy them all for himself? My assumption is that he would have, as having a public library goes towards the public spirited motives he had in starting his own public university, the University of Virginia. We need to be together to tell our stories, to learn our country’s story.

Why do we need to be together to tell these stories, to learn to build our childhood tales into more complex ones that tell the story of humanity more completely? Why do we want to read these books together? Furthermore, why did Silver Spring band together for the possibility of libraries and other public spaces alongside commercial success?

Silver Spring had a vision for itself: it was urban, ethnically diverse, and willing to fight for development that preserve that legacy while adding new and better resources, like a library, to grow the community. A mall might have let people avoid braving the elements to shop, but it would have stopped neighbors from passing on the street to pet each others’ dogs at all hours of the day and night. A bookstore might have satisfied Jamal’s urge to read while drinking a coffee, but it would be better if he could bring his kids to story hour and get a new book for free while he drank his coffee, one imagines. A mall full of predictable chain restaurants brings certain quality to the food, but wouldn’t put Silver Spring on a list of DC’s best food neighborhoods.

Residents wanted to connect with the story of their past, where McPherson remembers happy childhood memories of movies and ice cream, while invigorating the community life of their present with new restaurants, businesses, and, yes, new libraries. Building this library was an act of citizenship that began as an alternative story to a problematic development plan. Residents wanted development, but they wanted to be full citizens participating in how it happened. They wanted choices about how development would effect their lives personally. They didn’t want to cede control to out-of-towners if all they wanted was development, if that development would bulldoze their history. Fortunately, just as a library can embrace both print and electronic volumes, Silver Spring embraced its history and new development, and both were made stronger for not having to choose.

Even though I still enjoy a quiet library, my engagement with books has always transcended that quiet. Reading a good story, whether it is a work of fiction, an autobiography, a political history, or a scientist’s story of musical neuropsychology, always makes me want to talk to my friends, to my teachers, to my family, and to my fellow citizens about what this story means to me, to them, for us. Silver Spring’s library has managed this on a larger scale: not only were the kids I saw on opening day excited to take out books and return them on the conveyer belt, they were excited to see and connect with their school friends waiting in line to do the same, excited to share the wealth of stories they would soon hold in their hands for free. In connecting community spirit with books, Silver Spring has made it possible to read stories from near and far, from ancient times to present ones, and to continue its story as a place where people can come together to create their community’s story all over again.

* However, this was not death to the American Dream. It is now, as Governor Chris Christie put it, “the ugliest damn building in New Jersey and maybe America” under construction alongside the Jersey Turnpike, the most frustrating highway on the planet in this writer’s opinion. Leaving my personal opinions aside, it seems that Jersey natives and officials are split on how successful this mall will be for the area.