Infinite resource: The modern library has become far more than a quiet home for books

The galleries at Windmill (shown here), West Sahara and elsewhere are just some of the Library District’s lesser-known cultural offerings.
Photo: Steve Marcus

“’Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man/When I put a spike into my vein/And I tell you things aren’t quite the same.”

I’m not hearing these words boom out of my living room stereo. I’m not shuffling through the bays of a record store or waiting for the next band to go on. I’m at Windmill Library. Five of us stare at a projection screen as adult services assistant Kevin Bowman clicks through the songs of The Velvet Underground & Nico on Spotify.

Windmill Library and Service Center

It’s a little surreal that we’re in a meeting room listening to Lou Reed rhapsodize about his smack habit, and then a prostitute on her knees in “There She Goes Again.” For one, there are high school kids talking about their orchestra just outside the door. And this is a library in suburban southwest Las Vegas. But Bowman’s music club has met every month for three years. They’ve discussed everything from Nirvana to James Brown to the Hamilton score to Patti Smith (that was a good one).

And that’s the overlooked beauty of our libraries—they’re full of little cultural happenings that make it more than just a book repository. Like shopping malls, libraries in the 21st century must evolve to offer experiences and, more specifically, serve their communities if they are to survive the digital era.

I love our libraries, much more than the ones I grew up with in Southern California, which I associate with longer homework projects and barfy book smells. But you’ll rarely find me in the book stacks. I take advantage of both Las Vegas-Clark County Library District and Henderson libraries in other ways.

To wit: I once took my boyfriend on a date to Paseo Verde Library early in our relationship, which impressed him. More ordinarily, libraries are where I might donate old hardcovers and snap up used ones for a dollar each, where I look for magazines I didn’t buy in time and where I hunt down audiobooks before a long drive.

I do these things chiefly at Enterprise Library, my neighborhood branch and nearby indoor sanctuary for unplugging. It’s also one of my video rental stores, despite the five Redbox machines I pass to get there. But I’m generally not looking for recent Hollywood favorites.

What Enterprise (and the LVCCLD) is great for are the specialty and classic titles I’d always say I’d get around to seeing but never seemed to—until lately.

At the beginning of the year, I committed to watching a different Criterion Collection title every week, which I post on Instagram so I adhere to the routine. (As it happens, I’m currently one week behind.) It’s my favorite thing so far about this sinking rock of a year. And, as it happens, the library’s DVD stock isn’t just National Geographic documentaries and 26 copies of Life of Pi—it boasts a substantial complement of Criterion movies.

The scores have been righteous: the recent reissue of Harold and Maude, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and something by Spanish director Luis Buñuel, whose films I’ve never seen because where are you going to rent a Luis Buñuel movie in Las Vegas? When I audibly whoop upon finding a copy of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, I realized two things: 1. I’ve become a living Portlandia sketch, and 2. I’m now old enough to be excited about the so-called little things, and how great is it that my local library can deliver them.

I experience another charge of pleasure, this time at Clark County Library’s main theater during one of the free monthly concerts put on by UNLV’s jazz musicians. Conductor/jazz studies director Dave Loeb says one of the students has written a nontraditional arrangement: a jazz cover of Radiohead’s “Bodysnatchers,” which at the time is the most played song on my iTunes. I don’t go see live jazz to hear covers of rock songs, but the ensemble’s interpretation is exploratory and exhilarating, yet true to the spirit of the original.

The comfy, clear-sounding main theater is one of Las Vegas’ great unconventional music venues. I’ve seen all kinds of programs there, from literary discussions to independent movies, but the ones with live music might rank highest. One of the most experimental shows I’ve ever attended in Las Vegas happened in that room about 16 years ago, a refreshing occurrence in a town all but hostile to challenging culture, and at such an unlikely location.

The dirty secret is that the main theater is one of six major performance arts venues scattered throughout LVCCLD’s branches, all largely showcasing different programming. To put that in perspective, LA’s library system has only one. I discover one of Las Vegas’ before last weekend’s music club meeting at Windmill Library, when I randomly bump into my friend and former colleague Anthony Allison. Turns out he’s now programming arts events for its auditorium.

“Wait, what auditorium?” I ask, oblivious to the lettering above that identified it. (Apparently I’m not the only one.) He points to a nearby hidden door, which I crack open and encounter a large room with 300-odd seats and a large stage, on which the aforementioned orchestra kids play. This is not a unique Sunday; Anthony books many classical concerts for the space. It also hosts film screenings—about 100 parents and kids had to be turned away after a showing for Disney’s Moana hit capacity—and assorted performances, such as an upcoming one-man show where someone will act out the original Star Wars trilogy, which I can’t imagine not seeing.

Before I leave, Anthony hints at some upcoming changes for LVCCLD, especially with regards to its offerings and how they’ll be targeted to the community. In today’s evolve-or-die world, this is a crucial development. And it’s already happening.

During one of my last visits to Enterprise Library, I begin my usual beeline for the DVD section and suddenly hear loud dance music, not unlike the booming beats of XS when I walk down the hallway at Encore. I pivot, head toward the clatter and find an easel advertising a weekly DJ class. Initially, I think, great, Las Vegas youth are using a library to play Deadmau5 rather than read George Orwell—and what happened to the library being the one place you’re guaranteed some peace and quiet? Is this desperation? Devolution? The mental rantings of an aging, recovering nightlife writer?

I later evaluate the scope of my library use and the full scale of activities happening—and forthcoming—at Valley libraries. While they seem to be developing in the direction of community centers with an informational complement—especially as collections become less prominent on the floor and more reservation-based (to say nothing of their digitization)—libraries will always have books and, more importantly, be centered around educational resources. Perhaps these facilities are becoming progressive. Maybe they are offering what our schools cannot. Maybe they can help kids become both DJs and scholars.

If anything, it means a whole lot of more. More diverse amenities, more bang for our taxpayer buck, more bait for the otherwise disinclined—and more justification for my bullishness on libraries. They’ve replaced the Strip as the greatest source of freebies in Las Vegas.

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