Saturday, November 29, 2008

700 Fleming

The library on Fleming Street boasts the title of oldest public library in Florida, and it has to be one of the prettier ones. It's yet one more pink building surrounded by trees taking up much of a city block.Modern libraries are so much more than simply book depositories it's hard to know how librarians manage their roles in society. The library in Key West, as it is so many towns is a refuge for people with no place to go, and as such it has become a sort of drop-in center for the dispossessed. It has computers to give everyone a chance to glean what they need from the Web:The library is still mostly about books and reading, so we of course enjoy lots of heavily loaded shelves along with perhaps a seasonal theme:But we have electronics to feed as well and the library is good place to stop by for a DVD, or if you are old fashioned they still have some video tapes:They cater to youngsters and offer a room for their use, next to the meeting room at that end of the building which offers a space for lectures and movies and the like:Despite the modern demand for electronic gadgetry the library holds firm on the no cell phone rule, pushing patrons out into the cold if they have to yell into the box in public:
Libraries have come under fire for opening up the world of forbidden knowledge over the years. I find it as abhorrent as I do bizarre that there are people out there who think books should be banned, but when the pressure is on, our libraries have been quite astonishingly uncompromising on that too lately.The city-county library system in Monroe County has the usual problem facing public services in a county that is a hundred miles long and a mile wide in that there have to be lots of branches up and down the islands. I have used the Marathon, Big Pine and Key West libraries as well as the library at the Florida Keys Community College and found them all to be excellent refuges. And despite the usual lack of funds for a service that could improve the community immeasurably they do well with what they have.I guess it is helpful for me that I work nights in that the hours do tend to serve the unemployed but library closings seem inevitable in our newly impoverished world.In a city filled with retirees in winter the library is a hive of reading activities:Some of my younger colleagues look at me in horror when I talk about books. "I don't read!" Belen announced proudly. So I looked at her and said: "The only difference between you and a dog is that the dog can't read!" which isn't original but she was annoyed enough to bring a book to work, on the Holocaust of all things. Illiteracy is something that is still often considered shameful but there's enough of it around that there are ads for volunteer reading coaches posted at the library bulletin board.The library has always been a mark of civilization in a community and the fact that Key West's goes back in various guises at this location to the 19th century is a reminder that this was once Florida's biggest city. It seems odd nowadays to imagine that little Key West was the most salubrious town in a state plagued by heat, humidity, insects and illness. Key West was on the main shipping routes from the Gulf of Mexico and there was money to spare for a little culture in the town.When I lived on the margins in Key West getting a library card was the ticket to comfortable living afloat. A library card offered free entertainment in a town that lacked NPR on the radio and that lost its free TV with the departure of the translator antennae up and down the Keys. I presented my card one day to withdraw a book and the librarian checked the address as they do. "700 Sailboat Lane?" I nodded holding my breath. " Hmm," she said looking dubious. "This sounds like a Cheryl live aboard special." I nodded acknowledging my address as the approximate location of the sailing club on Garrison Bight. I owed Cheryl a lot for her help and now she's died I can confess she weaseled me a library card at a most opportune time. She made the library a shore base for a lot of transient sailor and I think of her every time I visit.The library is a handy place to park but overstaying one's welcome isn't a good idea. Its a county facility and there is usually a County Deputy hanging around ready to get scofflaws towed. On the other hand there is a rather decent little pocket garden next to the library which is a good place to hang when you do find somewhere to park:The homeless population certainly seems to have shrunk this year. The garden was almost unoccupied much to my surprise:How old fashioned.Not an electron in sight. We cannot however leave the library and this inadequate tour without a reminder that this is Key West, land of the million signs:The notion that coughs and sneezes spread diseases seems rather quaint sixty years after the end of World War Two and it's public service announcements ("Careless Talk Costs Lives"). Someone at some point thought chickens were a public health threat and put up a sign to that effect. There are people who think chickens are a threat. Some controversies never die and happily the library will be there to keep us informed.