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Wednesday, 24 May 2006 00:00

Selling the library out for all the wrong reasons

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Back last fall, about the time the Jackson County Library controversy mutated into an issue with all of the appeal of a dead mule in doorway of the Town Hall, I decided to give up my role as “gadfly.” I was bitterly opposed to the proposed site (Jackson Plaza), but eventually I began to feel that I was a single whining voice in the wilderness. The rest of Jackson County either approved of the site, or worse, simply didn’t give a damn.

Several friends had diplomatically suggested that I should accept the decision of the town board. A few critics told me I was undermining fund-raising efforts by my “negative attitude.” Further, I was informed that our civic leaders who were keenly sensitive to the culture and tradition of this county, “people with wiser heads than mine,” had approved the Jackson Plaza site. Shut up, Gary, they said. Let’s move forward together.

So, I shut up. I joined the Friends of the Jackson County Library, and offered to assist in fund-raising efforts. I told stories a few times and asked that the subsequent donations be given to the county’s building fund.

Then, a lady spoke to me in the grocery store a few weeks ago. “Why did you stop writing angry letters about the proposed library site? You were right, you know!” Well, that was a refreshing note. That was followed by several Western Carolina University folk in Spring Street Café and a group of people in City Lights Bookstore who said the same thing. Then, a few encouraging emails arrived. The views expressed by these folks bolstered my ego.

I decided to take a little reconnoitering trip to Jackson Plaza.

Why don’t you go with me? Here we go down Mill Street where there seems to be endless construction work (single-lane traffic). All of this is compounded by huge trailers unloading produce, beer and merchandise. Don’t get impatient! Try to remember that is “progress and growth.”

Turn right at the light on Grindstaff Cove Road, and up, up we go to Jackson Plaza where we turn right and drive across an expanse of grey asphalt (a half-empty parking lot) to a lone sign for a Western Sizzler that no longer exists. Now let’s survey the panoramic view: a wooded slope, the bleak posteriors of a few stores and a trickle of sluggish traffic for a bowling alley, a tavern/bar, a pawn shop, and a few vacant stores. To me, Jackson Plaza seems to generate a tangible lethargy, inactivity and silence.

This is the future site of the Jackson County Public Library. Sometime (possibly, before the end of the next decade), the citizens of Jackson County will be able to come here to enjoy the treasures of literacy and learning. Many of this library’s patrons will come walking (children and the elderly). They will trudge up this hill. Those who are much wiser than I persist in calling Jackson Plaza “downtown.”

But, walking or driving, patrons will come hoping to find a kind of pleasant sanctuary in an appropriate setting ... one that is conducive to thinking and reading. Ideally, it might reflect something of the county’s history and tradition for it is surrounded by familiar landmarks.

Jackson Plaza? Surely they jest. If the selection of this site indicates anything, it demonstrates that this decision was not made by people who are acquainted with the purpose and function of libraries. Jackson Plaza was not selected because it afforded an excellent view of the mountains or the town of Sylva. It was not selected because it has solitude, natural resources, beauty or tradition. It was selected in the vain hope that it might jump-start the flagging appeal of a comatose shopping center.

Is this the way that a county should care for one of its most precious resources — by prostituting it for “economic development?” Only a covey of myopic souls who perceive libraries as irrelevant (because they are not “profitable”) would come up with this scheme. I don’t believe that the “deciders” in this tragically wrong-headed decision were thinking about our library as a reservoir of knowledge and learning. Instead, they perceived it as a pawn in our economic growth.

The site for our library should have been determined by leaders who are mindful of the role it plays (or should play) in our county. When it is finally built, it should occupy a place that demonstrates its importance to us — not left like an abandoned waif in Jackson Plaza where it is expected to sing and dance for its supper.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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