Thursday, January 9, 1997
Public library an excuse
for gush-o-rama

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Although we like ourselves quite a bit, sometimes we want some things we can't have. A beach. The Louvre. Korean groceries. The D.C. subway. The Westminster Dog Show. Rodeo Drive.

Anyway, when we have something wonderful, something a lot of other cities would like to have, I say let's wallow in it.

I am speaking of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, and all its branches and books and tapes and CDs and wonderfully accommodating researchers and librarians. Specifically, I'd like to gush about the main library downtown, which still operates in the grand tradition.

No preferred customers

First of all, you do not have to pay for it with your taxes, then buy a license to sit there. It is free and open to the public.

If there were a library Super Bowl, we'd have been in the playoffs every year. This year, it's the second-most cost-efficient library in the country. Buffalo, N.Y., is first. (Apparently, they have somebody who contributes even more to their coffers from overdue book fines than I do.) Only the New York library has a bigger collection.

It is one of only three libraries in the country to keep complete census information, and people travel here from all over the world to study inland rivers and steamboats and Lafcadio Hearn.

When Fortune magazine came out with its ''best cities'' list, ranking Cincinnati seventh, one of the assets cited was our public library.

The library's customers are diverse; the attitude egalitarian. Birkenstocks stand comfortably next to Doc Martens in the book checkout line. There is no VIP entrance. The main library downtown services 41 locations all over the county - from Avondale to Westwood, from Sharonville to Symmes Township.

The doors are open when families can get there, including evenings and Sundays. You can come in a wheelchair, in jeans, in an evening gown. No problem.

Cheap thrills

The downtown building logs about 1.4 million visitors a year. Another 700,000 people come in electronically. In 1996, this institution allowed patrons to borrow more than 12.5 million times, everything from movies to music, from gothic novels to biographies. If you brought them back when you were supposed to, it didn't cost a cent. Nothing. Zip. Zero.

In the midst of the tiresome hand-wringing about where we will locate the stadiums to get the most out of our half-billion-dollar investment, the library made not a single threat to get into our pockets or to leave downtown or to move to a more advantageous area of downtown.

On Wednesday, a 156,000-square-foot expansion will be dedicated. It is worth noting that this structure is finished on time and on budget. It cost a lot of money - $44.8 million counting the land, construction, and various fees for architecture, engineering and consulting.

In the good old Cincinnati way, the trustees saved up the money first. No money has been borrowed; none owed.

Library customers might also have noticed that service has been virtually uninterrupted. The main branch will close at 6 p.m. Saturday and open again Wednesday for the dedication. Put that up against, for instance, how long your contractor closed your kitchen during remodeling.

And we are talking here about 92.4 miles of shelving and 4.5 million books.

This was a very big deal. With a lot of peculiar pieces. Just the week before the new section with its spectacular new children's department was to open, they were still working on the water in the 420-gallon aquarium, sending in ''sacrifish'' to see whether it was salty enough for their more exotic brothers. Testing the waters.

We do like ourselves here in Cincinnati. And we want to be as good as a city can be. Prosperous, cultured, big-league, first-tier. So maybe we'll get light rail. And maybe the Nordstrom boys will take another look at us. Maybe the stadiums will pay off. Maybe the city will lure more residential development. Maybe we can become a model for public education.

Maybe the cities who moved a little faster were sacrifish. And now we're ready to be as good as the public library.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.