As I wait in line at the Mission Branch of the San Francisco Public Library, a mother and her child ask the librarian about a new library card.
“Your birthday’s coming up. How old are you?” Connie, the librarian, asks the elementary school child from behind her desk. A mumbled response comes from the 4-foot tall boy. “Six? Twenty-five? Time to get a job then!” she adds teasingly.
The librarian’s desk flanks the hallway, seemingly monitoring the stream of traffic into and through the library.
Elementary school children skitter along the tiled floor. Some carry books to a designated children’s room lined with shelves. Some hold their parents’ hands as they pace around. Some do more than pace.
“Mijito, voy al baño,” says a mother to her boy, who is running around wildly, unable to be found. “Chuy, Chuy!” she calls to her son.
This library, located at the corner of 24th and Bartlett, houses an eclectic mix of patrons at 3 p.m. on a Thursday. Older folks amble inside wearing plaid sweaters and khaki slacks. Some street folk come here to pass the time, preferring the interior silence to the bustle outside. Even teenagers with skateboards come through.
Connie welcomes me in and points me up the stairs, where the library’s large reading room is. I prepare myself for the unsurprising rule against talking.
A library’s totalizing silence is always difficult to get used to, and the Mission Branch is no exception. Walking upstairs to the main room, the children’s voices and occasional street sound are left behind; in comes the absolute quiet that accompanies all serious reading.
Or writing. Or browsing the web. Two dozen people are seated at five sturdy wooden tables, quite a few using computers. One man sits near a bank of older Dell monitors, watching the United States lose to Germany in the World Cup. He keeps his cheers and boos to himself.
Other patrons browse the shelves lined with books. How many books? “A lot,” another librarian, Sylve, tells me later. She’s right, but there are not a lot a lot – many shelves are only partially filled, and others house movies and magazines, not novels.
“Necesita ayuda?” A librarian interrupts the quiet, beginning a muted conversation with a woman at her desk. I’m told that the entire staff is bilingual – speaking either English, Spanish, or Cantonese; some even speak French.
The conversation soon dies down, and silence settles over the room again, magnified by the library’s impressive stone roof. Only the scoot of a chair, the turn of a page, a cough, a sneeze — interrupt the calm.
Going back downstairs, a young man sits at the top of the stairs, rubbing his eyes in obvious mental anguish. A middle-aged man coming up the stairs says, “What the fuck?” to him, annoyed that the path is blocked.
Back in the entrance, two young boys draw on a computer monitor with crayons.
“Oh no, it’s okay. He was just studying,” says Connie the librarian to their mother, despite the mess they have created. Their mother apologizes, and reproachfully leads the kids away.
“Does this happen all the time?” I ask her.
“Oh yeah. Once kids find something they can draw with. It’s all art for them, you know?” she says, beginning to work along each crayon-line, scrubbing them slowly away.