Way more than books

by Alina Kodatt
I have a crush. It’s not an ordinary crush, like on a boy or a movie star. No, this crush is on a building, made of brick and steel and glass. Turns out I’m completely smitten with the downtown Main Street Library. Every Wednesday, rain or shine, my two year old daughter and I load up in my little car and venture to the headquarters of the Duval County Library System.
I have to admit that I wouldn’t normally consider myself a lover of libraries. Sure, I read and generally like learning. But to be honest, most of my previous experiences with libraries have been of the school research project, book searching and little-old-librarian-hushing variety. They were “serious” buildings, usually entered because of the force of something else propelling me through the front doors, like a high school assignment or college paper. So my crush admission comes as much of a surprise to me as it does to you.
I remember my first encounter with the library a few years ago. Armed with a bag of goldfish crackers, extra diapers and all the typical mom artillery, I navigated through the tricky one way streets until I finally landed myself in a metered parking spot along Duval Street. I entered through conference level off Main Street and was immediately struck by the spacious size of the hallway. It turns out that much of what I would fall in love with that day and on the many visits to come would be the grand scale of many features in this building. I love, for instance, the large, open staircases on every floor, the spacious outdoor courtyard featuring a breathtaking water fountain and the tomato red colored Grand Reading Room, covered in maps and by far my favorite room in the 300,000 sq. ft, five-story building.
While the libraries of my childhood were seats of literary creativity, the main street library is brimming with visual and musical art. Resting on the ground level is a small auditorium which regularly hosts musical performances. Throughout the entire building, photography and art grace many square feet of wall space. My favorite work of art is the large, three-story murals in the Grand Staircase, commissioned by an artist who painstakingly drew scenes depicting the history of Jacksonville. Every time we go, my daughter and I stop and stare, taking in the scenes, and always walk away having found something we’d never noticed before.
I also love the benefits of bringing my daughter to the library. Like most parents I know, I want to cultivate in her a love for learning and reading. The Children’s Department at the Main Street Library does an amazing job of inviting in young readers. The activity calendar is chock full of activities for kids ranging in age from baby to 14 years-old. My daughter and I personally love Preschool Project on Wednesday mornings with Jamie Sanborn. In that hour, she gets a dose of story time, art time, free play, singing and socializing, which are all great things for her stage of development. The staff is helpful, cheerful and personable.
But aside from these good, kid-geared things, I’m just as smitten with the less obvious perks of taking my daughter to the library. A trip to downtown inevitably means exposing her to things we don’t see everyday in our suburban neighborhood. We get to see the hustle and bustle of the city streets, pedestrians moving about their business, people of different socio-economic classes and racial diversity, historic buildings and beautiful architecture. This isn’t the suburbs in all of its 21st century city planning, new construction and car-dependent predictability. This is the city, a place where people walk to their destination. A place that, like many cities around the world, smells of hot concrete and rubber tires and today’s special being cooked up at the nearby cafe.
I can’t help but view the library as a mini version of downtown Jacksonville. Much like the city it sits in, the library offers educational opportunities, art, cultural diversity, history lessons and architectural beauty. And while I have heard people argue the irrelevance of Downtown in today’s society, resources like the Main Street Library (the largest library in the state, by the way) have me coming back for more, week after week.