An Afternoon in the Library: In Which Our Correspondent Has Difficulty Finding a Place to Sit Down With a Book

I had a question I couldn't answer, and as I always do when afflicted with that condition, I found myself at Lawson McGhee Library on Church Avenue. I've been there hundreds of times in the 20-odd years I've been writing this column. It's rare that a week passes without my showing up. Often, as the librarians there will attest, I lurk in the aisles, pulling out one book after another, sometimes sitting on the floor. I hesitate to actually check out the books, because they'll likely become an indistinguishable part of the ever-growing mass of legible material in my office.

I have a library card, of course. But when I check out a book, I'm responsible for it. It's a commitment, and sometimes I'm not sure I'm ready for that.

So when I can, I read library books at the library. The other day, I'd pulled out an interesting book about the Grand Ole Opry, trying to figure out something about its operation in the '30s, and, for once, felt too dignified to sit on the floor. Some of the books I found were kind of big, anyway. I thought, why, I'll just take these over to the reading-table area on the mezzanine, spread them out, and make some notes.

Me and that mezzanine go way back. I can remember lots of eureka moments there that made their way into a column or book. Facts can become like rare amulets. Find one you've been looking for and it can give you an agreeable little jolt you don't forget. You think maybe you're the first person who's made a certain connection. I have lots of specific memories of that mezzanine, of finding something that completed a story.

Well, with an armload of books, I went over to the mezzanine. For years and years and years, it was just an area with tables and about 20 chairs, There was always one free. Often, on any weekday in the '80s and '90s, just three or four were taken, and it was as quiet as a monastery.

Those days are dead and gone. Without conferring with me, somebody went to the trouble of installing computers on most of the tables. I guess it made sense at some progressive, idealistic level. It's the digital era, and the wisdom of mankind is now available online. A lot of people can't afford computers. Whatever else you have to say about them, computers are far more expensive than any communications system in the previous history of the American household. And many of those who do find a way to pay for the hardware, software, and monthly Internet bills can't afford all the subscription-only services that account for most of the wisdom available on the Internet. The library subscribes to a lot of information sources we have to pay for at home. Supplying computers to the public at large can seem a noble and necessary service.

Of course, there's still a lot that's not on the Internet. Most local history, in particular, is hard to find online, and what's there is often twisted somehow, with agendas attached. People like to post stuff about their ancestors. Interesting characters who didn't leave descendants, especially computer-savvy descendants, are out of luck. And when a story's available online, I usually don't bother retelling it anyway.

I understand the importance of what is available now. I'm happy to make room for it. But usually when I go to the library, I'm looking for something simpler than a computer. What I look for is a book and a chair and a flat surface.

That Thursday afternoon, as I toted my tomes over toward the reading tables, I found that every single one was occupied. Moreover, they were occupied by folks using computers. O brave new world, I thought. But the library does still have books, so there must be a place to sit and read the books. That day, they didn't.

In my mind, at least, the dilemma they posed me gave me license to snoop. If anybody minded, they were too engrossed in the developments on their computer screens to notice. Almost everyone who was using a library computer was using it to play video games. Most were shoot-'em-ups, angry-looking cartoon guys with large weapons.

To be fair, there was one library patron who wasn't playing a video game. She was watching an old sitcom.

If you tell me Knox County has a responsibility to provide a place for our residents to kill time, rather than hanging out on the street, I won't argue much. Observing some of these folks, their intensity and their marksmanship, I wasn't sure I wanted to imagine what they might be up to if they weren't playing video games.

But does it have to be on this one floor in downtown Knoxville where we also keep tens of thousand of interesting books that people like me need to pull out and put down somewhere, so we can read them?

Maybe it does. I looked over the ledge, down at the ground floor. There were more people on computers down there. At least some of them were playing video games, too. I didn't see any empty chairs at all. So, I took my books, found some aisle space, and sat on the floor.

A few years ago, our county officials decided that in a low-tax county, this main library we designed in the 1960s would have to do, even though Knox County has about 200,000 more citizens than it did then. And even though, since then, something called the Internet has been invented. People in low-tax counties have to accept lower standards. I understand that. We're low-tax and proud. Get used to it.

And our old reading room is now a video arcade. It's the 21st century, Pops. Quiet is over.

But are video games really the responsibility of the public library? Maybe providing opportunities for alternate-universe mayhem is more appropriate as a law-enforcement initiative, perhaps under the sheriff's budget.