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Urban Life: Complex Plot

Desert Companion

The new East Las Vegas Library is utterly unlibrarylike. And that’s exactly the point

The East Las Vegas Library is not really a library. Books are on the sidelines. Quiet is hard to find. Kids are playing video games on the computers. You can buy snacks, and can, wow, even eat them inside.

Or, at least, it’s not a traditional library. In fact, it says everything about the new East Las Vegas Library that it asks us to come up with a better word than “library” to describe it, because this new librar—uh, complex is a bracing embodiment of a contemporary definition of literacy. I’m warming up to alternate words like “communitarium” or “informaplex.” Okay, those are terrible. But what I’m getting at is that this glass and steel box proposes to be more of an incubator of potential than a repository of accumulated knowledge. It’s leaning hard into the future.

This isn’t anything new. Libraries have been making this shift for decades, struggling to stay relevant in a time when information and entertainment are just a swipe away on our smartphones. But in most cases, the library’s slow evolution has been a somewhat clumsy process of backfilling and retrofitting, colonizing book stacks for computer desks, threading digital connectivity into structures and systems originally built around the notion of solitary pursuit of static, analog information. In that context, the East Las Vegas Library isn’t doing some big crazy new thing. But it’s woven in lots of small crazy new things from the get-go, and that is its own big crazy thing. It’s got top-line DJ gear for making music, a soundproof room for podcast production, and cameras, computers, and green screens for producing videos. There are summer robotics workshops and adult-ed courses on tap. There are outlets for phones and laptops on practically every surface, and even a phone-charging locker if you want some time away from your screen. This is a contemporary, networked, intentional library that doesn’t merely react to how we create and consume media in the 21st century. It invites us to try new ways of doing it. Case in point: I don’t think I’ve ever been in a library that made me think realistically about being a DJ or vlogger. (Don’t worry, it was a fleeting fantasy.)

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This is starting to make it sound like the East Las Vegas Library is some kind of gleaming, tech-stocked spaceship abstracted from its surroundings. But that’s another, seemingly paradoxical thing about this library: It is aware of its neighborhood and the neighborhood’s story, and it’s trying to be a part of it. That’s not always the case with libraries, which, perhaps by their very nature as repositories of knowledge, can seem to vibrate on a frequency of delocation and placelessness. (E.g., I’m familiar with the architectural rationale behind the Michael Graves-designed Clark County Library, but it always looks to me as though at any moment it’s going to disgorge a swarm of alien kokopelli from Tatooine.) So it’s meaningful that the opening art exhibit at the East Las Vegas Library is a portrait series by Checko Salgado, who photographed the residents of 28th Street — the people in the neighborhood you’re likely to see at this very library. Also, Latinx artist Justin Favela, who grew up in the neighborhood, contributed a gorgeous piece, “Vistas de Mi Tierra (for my Abuelita Roselia),” on display in the computer lab. Surrounding the library outside are mature Aleppo pines that were growing on the site when it was a housing project. (Less fortunate trees were turned into cool-looking benches.) And whether it knows it or not, the place-conscious library is also replacing an old story. Its cross streets are Bonanza Road and 28th Street. If you grew up on the east side, you’d recall this as the territory of the 28th Street Gang, one of Vegas’ most notorious. (And one of its most brand-savvy: Back in the day, the gang’s signature block-letter logo was ubiquitous.)

Designed by Phoenix firm Richard + Bauer architects in collaboration with Carpenters Sellers Del Gatto, the physical building’s style might be described as off-brand luxe municipal — nice, but not too nice. Inside, you do feel a salient absence of any sense of grandeur or aspiration you might expect based on your vestigial idea of a library; the cost-effective furniture is hygienically unremarkable, and feels like a purgatorially less comfortable version of anything at IKEA.

But in a way, that level of institutional modesty fits with the focused function of the library. The East Las Vegas Library is not a destination as a piece of architecture, or even necessarily as the kind of public building that excites our civic imagination and manifests our identity. But it’s a well-conceived neighborhood resource that brings a good sampling of the 21st century to the east side.

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