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The library and the candy store: a story of generational change | COMMENTARY

Shykilah Saunders, 14, of Cockeysville reads in the Teen Zone at Cockeysville Library on Oct. 13.
Shykilah Saunders, 14, of Cockeysville reads in the Teen Zone at Cockeysville Library on Oct. 13. (Staff Photo by Jen Rynda)

Years ago, the candy store was a fixture in neighborhoods across the country. A precursor to the 7-Eleven, these mom-and-pop operations provided a variety of goods and services in a convenient, friendly atmosphere — newspapers, magazines, sandwiches, coffee, cigarettes, stationary, toys. There was something for everyone at the candy store, and sooner or later, everyone in the neighborhood dropped by.

Parents, however, warned their children about spending too much time there; the pinball machines in the back attracted a bad element, and there were too many racy magazines on the rack next to the newspapers, in addition to comic books and CliffsNotes, which they also disliked.

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The public library stood in sharp contrast to the neighborhood candy store. There were no pinball machines in the library, nor were there any racy books or magazines. Anatomically correct or explicit books were kept in a locked cabinet, accessible only by the librarian. Good kids went to the library after school and did their homework under the watchful eye of the librarian, who always enforced quiet.

Fast-forward a generation or two, and the situation has been reversed; convenience stores are a fixture in almost all neighborhoods, and their sterile interiors bear no resemblance to the messy, often cluttered candy stores they replaced. The lunch counter is gone; now, only takeout is available. ATMs have replaced the pinball machines, and most convenience stores now limit the racy material so as not to offend customers.

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The public library has gone in the opposite direction. CliffsNotes and comic books are readily available in public libraries, and urban fiction, romance paperbacks and books with four-letter words in the titles (“Go the F*** to Sleep,” comes to mind) offer content that might have been too explicit for Mom and Pop. Pinball machines were never a feature in libraries, but many local branches now make handheld gaming systems available to young people. And libraries that once shooed teens away now welcome them with electronics, board games and snacks.

Several years ago, I worked for a public library system that had, arguably, one of the best audiovisual collections in the country. Located in a large, cavernous room, the collection contained DVD or VHS copies of virtually every significant American film ever made, an entire wall of foreign and independent films, a collection of silents and film noir, the “Buck Rogers” serials starring Buster Crabbe, and early African American classics like “Imitation of Life,” “Stormy Weather” and “Cabin in the Sky.” A 35 mm print of “Roots” was the pride and joy of the collection; it didn’t get much use in recent years, but staff treated it like the crown jewels.

For a variety of reasons, library management decided to close the collection. The 2008 recession forced cutbacks, and trying to own everything got to be expensive; upper management also decided it was time for the library to rebrand. We were no longer interested in playing an archival role; the library was now a vibrant community hub. The “Roots” print was donated to another library system, while other films were parceled out to smaller branches. The AV department’s collection policy was redirected toward recent, popular movies.

While this was going on, a branch on the other side of the county found itself inundated with teens. Every day at three o’clock, as many as two hundred kids would appear at the library, occupying every seat and computer in the building. Those who couldn’t find a place to sit would congregate in hallways and stairwells. Citizens began complaining to local elected officials, demanding action.

Utilizing the building’s 200-seat auditorium, the library opened “Teen Zone,” a place for kids to meet and hang out. The library provided hand-held video games and vending machines dispensed a variety of snacks. Initially, librarians assigned to Teen Zone objected, comparing it to babysitting. But the library had less than half as many books as it did 10 years ago, and the reference desk was also not as busy as it used to be, thanks to Google and the internet. In-depth inquiries had largely given way to questions like “What time do you close?” or “Where’s the bathroom?”

Shuttering an AV collection and opening Teen Zone: no other juxtaposition so clearly depicts where public libraries have been and where they are going, from repository of our cultural heritage to after school hangout. If Mom and Pop were still around, they might resent the “new” library, or at least as it functions pre-COVID (and post, I hope); kids are heading to their local branch instead of the candy store. But it is a moot point; the candy store was never able to accommodate more than 10 or 12 kids at a time. Today’s public library operates on a scale Mom and Pop could never have imagined.

Stephan Barker is a former librarian in the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System. His email is utiforo@yahoo.com.

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