Until recently, one of the (many) jobs I held was that of a construction worker, specifically installing shelves in libraries. It was not a very fun or rewarding job (as you can imagine) but it did give me the opportunity to see a lot of different areas in the Atlanta region, from up in Alpharetta to the West Side of Atlanta, to the ‘burbs of Gwinnet County.
The last job I worked was particularly interesting.
In Southwest Atlanta off Metropolitan Parkway rose a newly constructed library, a modern building with classical columns adorning its street-side entrance. Large windows filled the spotless interior with sunlight, seemingly providing more light than the modern fixtures. Outside, the landscaping was meticulously manicured (at least, it was by the end of the project).
Juxtaposed across the street from the library’s parking lot sat small homes and cars parked on the street with broken windows and flat tires. In stark contrast, a Porsche was parked on the lawn of one home, looking out of place next to the others.
We worked from 7:30 in the morning until around 12:30, unloading pallet after pallet of parts and pieces of the bookshelves, and staged them before breaking for lunch. Crammed into my friend’s 2004 Toyota Camry in search of food, we drove only a block before finding a great looking Jamaican place–Jamrock.
No more than a small shack, Jamrock is framed on one side by a screened-in room with smoke escaping in puffs from it and a porch with a picnic table on the other. Inside, smoke hangs in the air but is barely noticeable against the savory aromas that accompany it. It’s some of the best Jamaican food I’ve had and we went back every day until the job was done.
On the second day of the job, we decided to walk to Jamrock and on the walk back to the library I noticed something I hadn’t seen before: just a few feet from the restaurant, a railroad crossed above Metropolitan Parkway. I remember thinking, “I wonder what that is?”
In an instant I knew that, obviously, it was the highly anticipated South West branch of the Atlanta BeltLine. Dilapidated and unadorned by any signage, this part of the BeltLine is still just that–an old railroad running through the city. The novelty of the BeltLine is nowhere near wearing off and in response to stalls in development on the West Side some Atlantans are taking matters into their own hands.
In another instant, however, I felt a twinge of concern: Is this library for the current residents of the community, those kids sitting on the sidewalk by the corner market, or for the future people who will live in the apartments and condos that will probably pop up in the next 18-24 months?
Out of curiosity, I mapped the other libraries of AFPLS’s “Building for the Future” plan to see where else these nice new libraries are going.
There is another new AFPLS library not far from this one, to my surprise, also in South Atlanta and also a short walk from the BeltLine trail. When compared to the map of AFPLS’s other libraries, intown Atlanta (ITP) appears inundated with libraries while North and South Fulton were rather lacking before the addition of these new libraries (and still are, relatively speaking).
The locations of these libraries illustrate where the county anticipates growth and development in the near future; development along the BeltLine and Alpharetta have exploded in the past couple of years. Of course, these libraries have been in planning for years and only got the green light after Atlanta and Fulton County voters passed a bond referendum to add to AFPLS in 2008, so the locations must have been selected with care.
But why so close? Who are these libraries for?
The Pew Research Center published a new report, “Libraries at the Crossroads,” on September 15th that contains a ton of data on library usage and their public perception in today’s modern, tech-focused, screen-obsessed society, and the results are telling. According to this report, while on average there is little change in the percent of total Americans using libraries, the people that care about libraries the most are more likely to be parents of minors, more educated, younger, lower-to-middle income, or women.
We know that Americans love libraries and think they are crucial parts of communities, and Pew’s data backs that up: 65% of respondents 16 & over say that closing their local library would be a huge blow to their communities, peaking with 76% of Hispanic Americans saying so. However, the report outlines a possible trend of fewer and fewer Americans actually going to libraries; whereas 53% of the general population 16 and above visited a library at least once a month in 2012, only 46% have today. Broken down by race/ethnicity, those numbers are nearly identical as well.
While this fall in attendance has been bemoaned for years, Pew’s data reveals that this is not a simple decline in popularity of libraries, but rather an evolution. “Although it is too soon to know whether or not this is a trend,” the author of the study notes, “this data paints a complex picture. Not one in which libraries become increasingly obsolete amidst the rising tide of digital entertainment and broader access to online resources, but a portrayal of how Americans think libraries should adapt to these technologies.”
Libraries nowadays provide many digital services aside from offering books, and the American people want to see them pursue even more. While fewer people may be going to libraries, mobile traffic on library websites has increased from 39% of all traffic in 2012 to 50% today. That could speak to the fact simply that more people today have mobile devices, but it also illustrates that more people expect libraries to be up to speed with their personal devices and the apps on them.
So if libraries aren’t going anywhere and are seen as key to healthy communities, what does this mean for the communities around these BeltLine libraries?
The people that I’ve talked to in The West End view the BeltLine as a double-edged sword: While it will bring growth and development, that very development will without a doubt increase property values and taxes, pricing many of the current residents out of the neighborhood. Looking at the data, African Americans are more likely to use libraries for job-searching, but younger, more educated parents are the most frequent patrons of libraries. Considering the proximity of other libraries to the BeltLine, AFPLS’s libraries could be part of Atlanta’s hopes to cater to young professionals looking to start families.
Are these libraries the City and Fulton County’s admission that they’re preparing for that seemingly inevitable change or are they trying to bolster these communities from that gentrifying force?
Who knows, maybe AFPLS is just trying to get in while they can still afford the rent.
It’s quite possible I’m wrong and just looking into this too much, but I think it’s an interesting development in Atlanta’s changing landscape. The Metropolitan Parkway Library opened on October 1st, so go take a look for yourself and get some jerk chicken or oxtail at Jamrock while you’re at it.