Eugene’s Library Had People Looking Up

How quickly they grow up! It seems impossible that ten years have passed. We had been setting money aside for years — if only that money could guarantee a bright future! We knew our hopes would have to rely on other people. We knew hope alone wouldn’t be enough. After three voter miscarriages, many of us were afraid to hope again. Others would have to find our baby useful — because adorable can get you only so far in this world.

But then, all of a sudden, there it was — four stories tall and filling half a city block. The Eugene Public Library brought hope again to our downtown.

You walk inside and the spiral staircase pulls your eye upward, adding a third direction of wonder to the interior expanse. The exterior facade is unassuming and pragmatic during the day. But at night, its glassed elevator enclosure swoops upward in a gesture of light that tells Eugene there’s hope. There’s reason to look up.

We’ve been looking up — and not back — ever since.

I came to Eugene with a list of what I wanted in an adopted hometown. Eugene didn’t lack much, except a library of consequence. So I joined A.B.L.E. (A Better Library for Eugene), a new group dedicated to changing that. The old library on 13th Avenue was cramped and shopworn. Residents used it mercilessly. At any given time, one third of the library’s books were in circulation.

That factoid gave me an idea how residents could demonstrate their library’s inadequacy. If every resident agreed to return all their library books and refuse to check out new ones, the aisles quickly would become impassable. Books would be stacked on the floor beneath the overfilled shelves. Smith Family Bookstore is charming in its own right, but that’s not what you want in your public library.

We might have achieved social change by coordinated acts of civil obedience.

I was dissuaded from this strategy by one with a better name. On Theodor Geisel’s birthday, the Comic News sponsored and organized a Dr. Suess readathon. We invited all the movers and shakers in town to come read for half an hour.

Our Seussapalooza worked. Many of these decision-makers hadn’t been inside the library building in years. We didn’t have to explain the need. It was obvious.

Meanwhile, other more serious people were busy doing work that really mattered. Jim Johnson, Cathy Briner, Bill Sullivan, Tom Wiper, Ted Baker and others were setting us on a course for the better future we now enjoy. The Eugene Public Library Foundation committed to raising an extra $5 million to make the building something that meets the public need, but also instills civic pride.

The Comic News challenged the Eugene SLUG Queens to show who could raise more money for the new library. We devoted pages of every issue to an on-line auction of quirky items. (I still regret not bidding enough to win the wind-up Last Supper throw pillow that plays “Hey, Jude.”) The SLUG Queens “demonstrated” on Saturday afternoons in front of the old library, collecting cash in a toilet bowl.

In the end, we both had first floor toilets named in our honor. The SLUG Queens (several of whom have been men) claimed the unisex restroom as the “SLUG Queen Throne Room.” Marion Sweeney secured the naming rights of the women’s room for her daughters. I got the men’s room named the “Comic News Reading Room.”

During the new building’s opening gala, we all marveled at the exquisite two-story periodical reading room named after this newspaper. I sidled up to Bridget Baker to congratulate her and thank her family for their vital role. “It’s nice,” I joked, “but my reading room has stalls that lock for privacy.”

I’d like to believe that somebody will visit Eugene with a list like the one I had, trying to choose a city where they would like to live. Once they see that we could raise money for the naming rights of the downtown library’s bathrooms, I hope their choice will be that much easier.

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All are invited to a celebration of Eugene Public Library’s 10th birthday this evening at 6 p.m. Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) owned the Comic News from 1995 until 2005. He writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.