Today's Libraries Drop the `Shush!' and Add Pizazz: Coffee, Snacks Accompany Stacks

Article excerpt

You want a cafe latte and perhaps a muffin or a croissant. Where do you go?

Why, the library, of course.

Too young for latte? Libraries have lures for the swing set, too, ranging from bookmarks to T-shirts, fast-food coupons to tickets to the ballpark.

"Today's libraries aren't what they used to be, and neither are their customers," said Linda Wallace, director of the public information office of the American Library Association.

Libraries of the '90s might not exactly swing, but they're certainly shedding their staidness. "Family-friendly" is the image they want to project.

To that end, libraries are adding cafes and espresso bars and inviting patrons to enjoy beverages and snacks while they browse.

The silent stacks have given way to Nintendo, videos and talking books. "Shushing" exuberant young voices is nearly a no-no.

A sign in the children's room at the Deerfield, Mich., library actually proclaims: "No Quiet Zone." And in Chicago's Logan Square branch, squeals often emanate from the Exploratorium, a room filled with children's educational toys, puzzles and books.

"I've seen a real sea change," said George Needham, executive director of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association. "Libraries have become community centers where people can enjoy themselves."

A library in Ohio, for example, held a seminar for teen-agers on "How to Cook Dinner on a Car Engine."

"They are doing lots of creative things to attract patrons," Ms. Wallace said. "Libraries are very exciting places."

Incentives and rewards are paying off because library patronage continues to rise.

A November poll taken by Gallup for U.S. News & World Report and CNN found that 67 percent of American adults went to a library at least once in 1995, compared with 51 percent in 1978.

"A lot of times library use doesn't mean coming into a library," Ms. Wallace noted. "It may mean calling with reference questions, attending a preschool story hour or tying into a computer."

The latest ALA data indicate that 80 percent of library patrons borrow books; 64 percent use reference materials; 50 percent read newspapers or magazines; 35 percent take out records, tapes, films or audio books; and 25 percent attend special programs featuring speakers or movies. Baltimore County libraries, eager to cultivate a family-friendly image, have taken to offering rewards of a bookmark, T-shirt or magazine subscription to encourage youngsters and their parents to visit the library.

The idea of incentives is not new. Most libraries have offered token incentives for years in connection with summer reading programs. In recent years, though, certificates or bookmarks for reading a requisite number of books have given way to grander rewards. Young readers in Baltimore and Cleveland had the opportunity to win Orioles or Indians baseball tickets.

"There's an ongoing debate in the profession over whether or not we should use a reward system or is reading its own reward," Mr. Needham said.

"In the real world, where you compete with video games and computers, sometimes you have to add a little pizazz to your offering," he said. "We've got a generation of kids raised on a system of quick gratification and rewards for doing well. We've got to keep that going to keep them interested in the library as well. …