There is ample reason for genuine enthusiasm about conceptual plans for modernizing Astor Library. At the same time we contemplate a thorough reimagining of its physical structure, it's also a good time to examine fundamental assumptions about what a library is and how all North Coast communities can make better use of these vital assets.

Even in Andrew Carnegie's day, when the mighty U.S. industrialist helped build 2,509 libraries between 1883 and 1929, libraries were much more than mere storage facilities for books. Librarians themselves have always had a richer conception of them. In the Internet age, it is especially the case that libraries are broadening into being important structures in the complex, interlinked "brains" of our society.

The design ideas printed in our Tuesday edition are exciting in various ways, but particularly in embracing the library's surroundings by replacing concrete slabs with windows. This is neatly symbolic of a sea change in how we think about libraries and how libraries think about the world. From being closed sanctums of knowledge, they have become entry points for global conversations and exchange of ideas.

Considering the obvious appeal of libraries as sophisticated farmer's markets for information and communication, Clatsop County's examples remain a little handicapped by each operating as essentially freestanding entities.

This wouldn't be so obvious were it not for the nearby existence of the Timberland Library System, which serves Southwest Washington from Olympia to Ilwaco. Though it has not escaped wounds in the currently challenging economy, Timberland still manages to give world-class services to a region that might otherwise see many small towns hobble along with libraries consisting of donated books and low-rent space.

By combining together, the communities served by Timberland manage to afford a library system that would be the envy of most world-class cities. Sitting in one's home, it is routine to order almost any conceivable book or bit of information. Furthermore, in a time when Google and others are digitizing the world's books for instant computer access, Timberland is carving out a continuing role in its patrons' lives by offering everything from free WiFi to downloadable eBooks, music and video.

As we look at upgrading Astor Library's facilities, it is time for a renewed dialog about getting past turf and tax issues to bring all North Coast libraries into a framework that permits the same economies of scale and other advantages on obvious display in the Timberland system. Though a bright, newly renovated building is important, rewiring the ways we share knowledge is far more so.


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