Where Nobody Says “Shhh”

Zachary Ngin, Book Critic

   Public library. If you were asked to associate a sound with the term, a certain throaty hissiness might come to mind, the muffled humiliation of a librarian’s shush. Or maybe you’d hear the constant scurry of turning pages or the harsh beep of the automated checkout. Lying in the same realm of sensation: mucky bathrooms and dusty paper, dank-smelling and ancient.

  This impression is mistaken. I know the library to be a place of vanguard technology and genuine community, human uproar public and proud. Really — I’m not joking. I write as a member of the youth advising board at The Mix, the teen center at the San Francisco Public Library’s Main Branch.

  The Mix is an airy space on the library’s second floor with colored lights and rolling chairs. Shelves of classics and graphic novels. Television projected onto glass. There’s an audio booth, instruments gleaming, music synthesized from scratch. There are digital cameras, tripods, laptops, and tablets.  A magnetic poetry wall, a makerspace: art supplies, circuitry, digital creation in three dimensions. Food, drink and laughter are all allowed.

  The Mix, which opened last year, was designed by teens, for teens, as a place for exploration without the pressure of discovery. It provides opportunities that, for many people, are unavailable elsewhere: 3D printing workshops and movie screenings, cooking classes and karaoke. For some, it’s simply a place for idle time or solitude. Some teens bring friends; others bring homework. Some make music; others listen. All of this—creative opportunities, gleaming facilities, 21st century skills—are provided free of charge to teenagers of all backgrounds. It’s the modern embodiment of old ideals: education, civic participation, wisdom and knowledge for all.

  For millennia, libraries have served not only as repositories of knowledge, but as centers of community. Alongside its scholarly collections, Ancient Egypt’s Library of Alexandria was said to include a dining hall and gardens. The San Francisco Public Library has honored that tradition for over a hundred years, despite setbacks like the 1906 earthquake, which destroyed 80 percent of its collection. By employing a social worker to serve homeless patrons, supporting young people with spaces like The Mix, and investing in digital resources, the library has embraced its crucial, versatile roles.

  The Mix offers services that extend beyond the physical. There are various online resources available to teenagers. The library offers live online tutoring: You can ask for help in nearly any subject area, or send in a piece of writing and receive comments. You can also access study guides and research databases through The Mix’s web site. The library can connect you with volunteer and job opportunities, too.

  And of course, there are literally millions of books that anyone with a library card can access. There are periodicals, historical archives, graphic novels, movies, pamphlets: anything.

  All programs and facilities at the Mix are free for library cardholders. If you don’t have a card, all California residents can obtain one for free at any branch. Closest to Urban is the Park Branch, a few blocks down Page St. towards Golden Gate Park. You can go online and order books from other branches, which would be sent for you to pick up.

  The Mix embodies high ideals, but in practical terms, it’s simple. It is a place for you. The Main Library is located at 100 Larkin St., and the Mix is open Tuesday through Saturday afternoons. Visit themixatsfpl.org for more details about hours and programs.

  Every city, every town, and every citizen deserves a public library. It’s the ultimate democratic institution; it contains multitudes. The Main Branch, where I work, is nestled in the heart of the city. Stony, solid buildings all around: City Hall, the Asian Art Museum, the state Supreme Court. Traffic sounds, homelessness, and venture capitalism hang heavy in the air. $5 coffees and their littered remains. A sense of things laid bare, splendor and squalor. Libraries embody metropolitan polyphony, transcribed and digitized—private dreams swelling into public eloquence.