Prairie Schooner Library Tour 2012 Travel Blog

Paradise in Broken Bow

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by Marianne Kunkel

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges and, wow, do I see his point. In the last five days, I’ve visited four Nebraska public libraries–in Fremont, Potter, Lexington, and Broken Bow–and like a big chocolate cake I keep snacking on for days, these modest spaces are consistently pleasant, sweet, and my idea of heaven.

Forget IKEA megastores. Better models of architecture and design are public libraries, where visitors can roam from one cozy corner to another. Oak banisters, full-length-mirror-size windows, soft track lights above bookshelves, a cappuccino machine–these are features that have tempted me to stay in Nebraska libraries long after Kwame and I finish our poetry readings. Add to the list crackling fires, found in the Lexington and Broken Bow libraries, and I never want to go home.

Did I mention the complimentary hot cider at Lexington’s library? Or the resident fifteen-year-old cat at Broken Bow’s library? I realize that not all public libraries have the antique woodwork or decorating-minded staff to offer such an inviting atmosphere, and certainly libraries’ increasingly-dwindling funds can deter employees from investing money and energy into these spaces. The conspiracy theorist in me even wonders if we’re seeing a misrepresentative sample–the state’s few charming libraries–because these proud library directors are most inclined to invite Kwame and me to visit.

But I should confess: we didn’t read at Lexington’s library. After an afternoon interview with David Schroeder at the town’s KRVN radio station, we dropped by the library to check email and kill time before our evening reading in Broken Bow. You could call us spies–off-the-grid suspicious types investigating the true character of Nebraska libraries.

Lexington didn’t disappoint. I drank bold, tart cider while browsing a biography of Mari Sandoz. Library directors who yearn for their libraries to stay relevant in this digital age will pay attention to ambience–think Starbucks with less noise and much more room–because the truth is, owners of e-readers don’t want to lose the cozy context of the printed book. Have you seen the cover of J.K. Rowling’s “Casual Vacancy,” its muted fiery hues and vintage cursive font?