NEWPORT BEACH — Reporters from the “Today” show and Al Jazeera don’t call Newport’s City Hall too often.
But they did last week after the Daily Pilot and Los Angeles Times published a story that went viral, and in the city’s eyes, spiraled out of control. The piece was about the library’s Balboa Branch and the city’s plan to replace it with an “electronic library” — one without book stacks — at the planned Marina Park community center.
Little did city officials know that the concept of doing away with books would spark the ire of librarians, book lovers and library users around the world. Some even thought that the city was doing away with books at its libraries entirely, which was not the case.
How the story morphed and spread illustrates the power of the modern-day media echo chamber. Ultimately, the city changed its Marina Park plan and added stacks, but some residents are still furious about possibly losing their longtime branch.
“A lot of us were surprised,” Mayor Mike Henn said. “Stories and issues sometimes outrun our ability to appropriately process them.”
The Daily Pilot wrote about the March 23 presentation. Editors at the Los Angeles Times, which owns the Pilot, indicated they were interested in running a different version of the story. After some material was added that compared Newport’s situation to that of libraries nationwide, and some local references were edited out, the story was posted on the Times’ website.
From that point, it spread like burning books.
By Monday morning, the story had been shared nearly 1,500 times on Facebook and Tweeted more than 150 times. News outlets around the country picked it up.
The New Yorker posted a link on its blog, The Book Bench, and said, “The Newport Beach library considers going ‘Netflix’ and turning into a place where folks can hang out and read books ordered from somewhere else.”
Other stories also referred to the “Newport Beach Library,” while some like the “Today” show’s were explicit about the Balboa Branch. The Times version didn’t explicitly state that the Balboa Branch was the one being replaced, and instead referred to it as the “original library.” City spokeswoman Tara Finnigan believes this is why some of the national stories were also ambiguous.
Soon, angry readers began to call, she said
To be clear, City Manager Dave Kiff and Library Services Director Cynthia Cowell proposed shuttering the nearly 60-year-old Balboa Branch building at 100 E. Balboa Blvd., the city’s original library, and instead open an “electronic,” or “Internet,” library at Marina Park when it is completed.
The new branch would not have stacks of books, but would instead have lockers where people could pick up books ordered on demand, they said. Comfortable seating and a fireplace would complement the 2,200-square-foot room’s strong Wi-Fi signal.
While national readers were indignant, West Newport residents were also upset — some at the prospect of losing book stacks on the peninsula, some about replacing their familiar branch with a reading and Internet room, and a few thought the entire library system was doing away with stacks, Finnigan said.
Community leaders called for a meeting at City Hall last week. People packed into the council chambers and overflowed into the lobby. They brought their elementary school-aged children to protest.
“My concern was stack-less,” said Elizabeth Wiley, 43, a Newport Shores resident and vice president of the Newport Elementary School PTA. “Children learn with a book in their hand. If it’s not in the hand, it’s not in the brain.”
While the library did plan to continue its children’s reading programs at Marina Park, librarians would have to drive piles of books there, according to the original proposal.
They would also bring extra titles to be checked out, said Cowell.
On Thursday, officials unveiled a new plan that would include more than 12,000 books there — both adult and children’s titles. The Balboa Branch has 35,000 items, including DVDs and other materials. Most of the response at the meeting was negative, attendees said.
“We were trying to react in a constructive way,” Henn said, emphasizing the plan is in its early stages and the city is again reconsidering. “But we got off on the wrong foot.”