The Blasco Library in Erie, Pennsylvania, hugs the waterfront of Presque Isle Bay. If you’re in the library and it’s your lucky day, you’ll hear a librarian come onto the PA system to announce that the U.S. Brig Niagara is pulling in to moor right outside the big windows. No one in Erie wants to miss that. The Niagara is the replica of an elegant flagship that was part of the fleet that defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812, and Erie is its proud homeport.
Until two decades ago, the library sat up the hill on South Park Row, in a Beaux Art building in a more traditional location in the center of downtown. In the late 1980s, the General Services Administration proposed taking over the building to expand the space needed for the Erie Federal Courthouse. A hot debate ensued over where to build a new library, formally called the Raymond M. Blasco, M.D. Memorial Library: keep it in town, or move it to the then-derelict waterfront. The site had been part of the town’s old generating station, and the library would be the first modern resident of the space. “It was feral cats, rats, and sludge,” said the library’s executive director, Mary Rennie.
The County Council voted 4–3 in favor of the waterfront location, and the building went up, which now is applauded as a brilliant decision that began the revitalization of the town’s scenic waterfront.
Today, the library is an anchor among good neighbors. It shares next-door space with the Erie Maritime Museum and sits in the lee of Erie’s Bicentennial Tower. You can hear tinkle of sailboat halyards in the small marinas. This sound is imprinted in me from growing up as a sailor on Lake Erie in the small town of Vermilion, Ohio, about 150 miles west of Erie. Commerce is arriving as well: the Bayfront has two new hotels, a convention center, an intermodal transportation center, and a few restaurants. I watched small wedding parties staging their photographs on one of the piers, as fishermen stepped out of the way. People come for the spectacular sunsets over the water to the west and the Presque Isle State Park with nearly a dozen beaches for summer crowds. Tourists line up to ride on the kitschy pirate ship, manned by crews in full-regalia who cry out for customers in the old-time vernacular of ahoys and aarrs!
The nautical theme moves indoors as well. That’s a good thing, especially when the infamous lake effect dumps yards of snow onto Erie. People can move protected back and forth between the library and the museum. The first thing you notice is the installation of what I would call sails, and is officially called “Aquatic Dancers” by local artist John Vahanian, that fly above the broad stairways in the main atrium under the skylights. Upstairs is a lovely collection of art, including Summer Afternoon, Isle of Shoals by Frederick Childe Hassam, which, heartbreaking for me, was on tour when I visited, and a Lalique glass fish sculpture. On the main floor is the quiet Peninsula Room, so named for its view of the Presque Isle peninsula, with its high windows and concert-ready acoustics. It’s no wonder that tourists who come in for the computers or wi-fi connections are immediately distracted by the views and locations.
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The Erie County Public Library system (ECPL), which includes the Blasco, four other libraries, and a bookmobile, works hard to be visionary and relevant to its population. It offers a multitude of programs, from QiGong to musical performances to “kindercoding” for early computer literacy.
Some years ago, the International Institute of Erie (IIE), which is one of the several refugee resettlement organizations in Erie, approached the library about giving orientation tours of the library to the new arrivals, including now the Syrian refugees, whom I wrote about here, as they start their new American lives.
The program has grown. Recognizing how difficult it was for newcomers to navigate around the library in search of diverse holdings that might help them, the library collected them into a single place. The International Collection includes the foreign-language books, the ESL materials, and practical information for finding jobs and obtaining citizenship. One refugee from Kosovo described how computer and internet access at the library had been his major lifeline during his early days in Erie, as a way to find news of the country he had left and to keep in touch with far-flung friends and family.
I still find it shocking to hear the stories of how essential internet access is to library users. The Pew Research Center reports that 67 percent of Americans have home broadband connections. Let me put that another way: 33 percent of American lack broadband connections home. In the city of Erie, this is true for 30 percent of residents. In the county of Erie, which includes outlying areas of both affluence and poverty, the figure is 21 percent.
Here at Blasco, the library is pushing for internet access not only inside the library, but in mobile fashion. The library purchased ten wi-fi hotspots—portable wifi units—early in the year. Their early intention, said Erin Wincek, the young and dynamic coordinator for ECPL, was educational, a way for kids without access at home to connect to their school-distributed iPads. The hotspots have been wildly popular for many kinds of uses well beyond the first intention, from people taking them on vacation to connecting during various civic meetings in church basements. The library just purchased an additional 15 hotspots, and the hotspot borrowing waitlist stands at 100.
The Blasco library is aiming at another transformation. The first phase of a building renovation will include, among other projects, a makerspace. (The renovation is being funded from the leftovers of a casino-funded capital outlay for the town airport’s runway expansion, which came in under budget, but that’s another Erie story.)
Makerspaces are one of the creative new trends in public libraries. I’ve seen several during our travels, from the ambitious, heavily used space in Washington D.C.’s flagship library, which includes several 3-D printers, and tools like laser cutters and wire benders, to the modest new one in Dodge City, which includes mostly donated equipment like an A.V. system and a sewing machine. Artists use makerspaces for all kinds of digital constructs; entrepreneurs use them for designs and beta tests; handy people build or fix stuff; kids tackle fancy versions of work done in school shop class a generation ago; creative types use them to help fabricate small business products to sell. Makerspaces have become hotbeds of ideas, synergy, shared teaching, and creativity.
Miguel Figueroa, who directs the Center for the Future of Libraries project for the American Library Association, says part of the modern mission of libraries is to be places to not only consume knowledge, but to create new knowledge. Erin Wincek related to me that the library is creating their new space, which they’re calling the IdeaLAB, for Erie’s greatest resource, its community of people. She says that they hope it will be a place to learn new things and skills, bring folks together, and “inspire ideas that will change the direction of people’s lives.”
The Blasco library has big ambitions. And it has a track record. The library has already changed the Erie waterfront for the better. Now, with adaptations to the new era of Erie and its people in mind, there is every reason to think the library can continue to help Erie residents change their lives for the better, too.
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