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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

"A library is not a luxury, but one of the necessities of life." -- Henry Ward Beecher.

Things sure are changing fast. Not too long ago, it would have seemed crazy to make a phone call away from home without the aid of a pocket full of quarters to feed a hungry pay phone. Now, everyone and their grade-schooler has a cell phone. They have replaced landlines in American homes.

A decade ago, if you wanted to see a photograph just after you snapped it, you had to have a Polaroid camera and the dexterity to wave a picture in the breeze like a Southern debutante working an accordion fan on an insufferable July afternoon in Macon. Today, digital cameras are being phased out, as every smart phone has a top-notch megapixel camera as part of its basic package of tools.

There was a time when the main public library was the center of the learning universe for the community of Niagara Falls. When the postmodern structure on Main Street named for the former majority leader of the New York State Senate was opened in 1974, it was heralded as a cornerstone for a new Niagara. The hope was that the Paul Rudolph-designed building would help tie the city's housing areas to the new urban renewal district being implemented downtown.

Back then, the Earl W. Brydges Library was like a juke joint that everyone wanted to get into on a Saturday night. There was no need to spend any money on advertising. The place barely needed a sign above the door. Just make sure there was Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap and 45s spinning in the jukebox, and there would always be a surplus of bodies grooving on the dance floor.

But, as we made note of at the opening, times are indeed changing fast. Today, PCs have put a mobile library in every backpack. Nooks and Kindles have taken the bulk out of carting around a dozen books. Google is the new Encyclopedia Britannica, and everything that we thought we knew about what a library is and should be needs to be rethought, reconfigured and redesigned.

Fortunately for the city of Niagara Falls, locally born and raised Michelle Petrazzoulo returned home last year, took over our shared literary ship, and has adroitly steered it through rocky waters.

Recently, we sat down and she shared her assessment of where our library stands today, along with her vision of how it should be positioned to ensure its long-term health and connectedness to the community.

Michelle grew up in LaSalle, and we talked in the very same Buffalo Avenue branch where she spent many a childhood afternoon, whiling away the hours with her nose in an open book while her mind visited places far beyond the banks of the mighty Niagara River.

Today, the attractive, diminutive brunette mother of 9-year-old Elizabeth exudes a hippy-centric charm that both disarms and comforts those in her presence.

She spent 14 years in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library System in North Carolina before agreeing last year to take over as library director from Dan Killian, who held the post on an interim basis after the departure of the popular Betty Babanoury. Michelle received her master's degree in library and information studies from Greensboro College after obtaining an undergrad degree in psychology from SUNY Albany.

"I grew up on 72nd Street, and this was the library I would ride my bike to," Michelle explained on a morning when the late February snow made spring seem like a season anywhere but in the on-deck circle. "I'd sit at the round table by the window and read my books and get lost here for hours on end."

That early connection to the transcendent power of books would stay with Michelle, and it eventually helped shape her college career.

"When I was in college (pursuing her psychology degree), I did a work-study in the library. It didn't occur to me that this would be a career for me. While I always loved books, it was sort of like destiny was standing right in front of me, and I didn't see it at first."

Fortunately, Petrazzoulo soon followed her bliss and took some graduate classes that led to her master's degree. She started in Charlotte in the circulation department, and then worked in almost every department -- including being a teen librarian for five years. That well-rounded background has left her perfectly suited to tackle the many facets needed to successfully grow library services here in the Cataract City.

"When I interviewed, (the library board) said they were looking for someone with new ideas, as well as someone with a lot of energy. I think what I offered was someone that obviously knew and understood the demographics of Niagara Falls, but also someone coming from the fifth largest library system in the United States who had been exposed to a lot of progressive concepts."

Joan Chen once said that "all teenagers have this desire to somehow run away." Petrazzoulo believes this as well, and she has targeted the teen demographic as one that the library needs to concentrate on to make sure that there will be enough patrons through the door in a decade from now.

"We do a great job with the grade-school kids, and we do fine with the adults, but we lose the teens completely. It's a gap that will hurt us if we don't close it, but I think we can create ways to engage teens and draw them to the library," she said.

Petrazzoulo has a "think outside the box" mentality, and she knows that's what it will take to bring teens off the sidewalks and into the library.

"I'd like to create an area where we can do some non-traditional things," she explained. "Music, dance, Karaoke, poetry -- those sorts of things. In fact, I can't fully define them, because it's been two decades since I was a teen, and what would appeal to me might not necessarily speak to today's kids. I want them involved to help create whatever it will be, because I actually want them to embrace and use it once it's done."

In other words, if they're going to run away, figuratively speaking, make the library the refuge destination of choice.

"Teens become tax-paying adults. If we don't engage them now, they won't value the library and, odds are, neither will their children," she said.

Michelle also believes that dispensing with some old library staples will be necessary to make the library user-friendly for today's kids.

"I just lifted the ban on cell phone use in the library," she explained. "It just seemed ridiculous. Cell phones are a staple of life now. By banning their use, we were giving kids a valid reason to stay away."

Something else that she is considering doing away with is the decimal system of book sorting -- championed by the late, great Melvil Dewey -- at the LaSalle Branch, instituting instead a bookstore-style system where books would be separated by categories like "Cookbooks," "Arts and Crafts" and "True Crime."

"(The Dewey Decimal system) is more for librarians than it is patrons. When we need to pull a list of books it is quite helpful, but to a patron, 641.5 doesn't mean anything, but they know what 'Cookbooks' means."

T.S. Eliot said that "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons," and Niagara's librarian knows that the marriage of coffee and books may well be the long-term salvation of the library here.

"I look at what Barnes and Noble has done, and I can see the results. People are spending all day at the bookstore. They sit with their coffee and they read and they are not in a hurry to go home. Isn't that what we want to achieve?"

This summer the main library will move temporarily to an as-yet-to-be-determined site so that a sloping problem with the floor of the structurally cursed building can be rectified.

When the library re-opens, Petrazzoulo would like to have taken steps to allow library patrons to sip a cup of espresso while they soak in some Sartre.

"We need to think beyond the bricks and mortar of the place. We need to give people new reasons to come and compelling arguments to stay once they do. People like to have a cup of coffee while they read. Why should we give them a reason to go find that experience somewhere other than right here?"

As our time together was drawing to a close, I asked Petrazzoulo what book made her fall in love with reading. She answered that it was Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 masterpiece "The Secret Garden." In the novel, Burnett uses the garden to symbolize the healing nature that is inherent in all living things.

I then asked Michelle what one thing she would like to say to the people of Niagara Falls.

"I'd like to tell them that things are changing, and we're changing too. Then I'd like to tell them to come see it for themselves," she said.

Her words should be tonic for the citizenry of a city still struggling to latch onto a renaissance that has been slow to develop. She has begun quietly turning the public library into a very special place -- a secret garden tended to by just the right homegrown gardener.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 1, 2011