Column: Newport’s library system is second only to its beaches in popularity

The Corona del Mar branch of the Newport Beach Public Library system, pictured in 2017.
(Photo by Kevin Chang)

To book lovers, libraries feel like home. They are the sofa we long to snuggle in after a long day; the old, comfortable shoes we slip on when the more fashionable ones make our feet ache; the cozy blanket we wrap around us on a chilly evening.

I learned to love libraries at a tender age, thanks to my mother. By middle age, mom was partially crippled with rheumatoid arthritis, but she had a bright, active mind and a passion for reading.

“As long as I have a good book, I’ll be happy,” she would always say. I can still picture her nestled into a stuffed chair, with a book on her lap and reading glasses perched on her nose.

Every Sunday after Mass, mom would take my siblings and me to our local library, where we knew all the librarians by name and they knew us, where we made beelines to our favorite sections and met up at the checkout counter to compare the treasures we discovered.

I was a sensitive, awkward kid, but those books had the power to transform me into an adventurous heroine whenever I wanted.

For awhile, under my big brother’s influence, I reveled in science fiction, leading me to dream about the other worlds I would one day explore. Mom got me hooked on mysteries, and we’d have animated discussions about who did it in the whodunit. She almost always guessed, and I never did.

Left to my own devices, I’d usually veer toward nonfiction, which could very well have been a clue about my later career as a journalist — a career that, not surprisingly, has relied heavily on library-based research.

National Library Week earlier this month was a welcome reminder that we should all celebrate these often-overlooked institutions, which are finally getting their due thanks to the best-selling “The Library Book,” by Susan Orlean, a fascinating dissection of the devastating fire at Los Angeles Central Library in 1986 and a love letter to libraries generally.

I recently had a more personal reason to revisit my appreciation for libraries. In early April, I was fortunate enough to be welcomed to the wonderful Newport Beach Public Library for an author discussion. As I prepared for the event, I marveled at the way libraries — one of the oldest fixtures of civilized society — remain an essential part of civic life even in modern times.

Although books form the linchpin, libraries have always been more than musty receptacles for the printed word. At their best, they are lively, engaged community information centers.

“We’re always going to be about books,” said Tim Hetherton, Newport Beach’s library services director.

“But what we really see ourselves as is a community hub. We really are the informational heart of the city. There’s something for everyone.”

Indeed, any notion that libraries are outdated relics, no longer relevant in a world measured in gigabytes, is just plain wrong.

Many libraries have evolved in clever ways — incorporating technology-enabled products and services, for example — while also managing to maintain the essence of their old selves. They are both traditional and cutting edge; classical, yet new.

The Newport Beach Central Library, for instance, has a media lab with 15 high-end computers, film editing equipment and a recording studio. A range of high-tech gadgets can be checked out in the same manner as books. Coding classes are offered in addition to more traditional fare such as children’s storytimes and book clubs for adults.

Hetherton is often amused to see young children excitedly skip in, showing no signs of discomfort or alienation. Many adults, by contrast, seem tentative, unsure, as they’re lured back after years away thanks to a medical lecture, software project or genealogical research.

Hopefully, their uneasiness quickly subsides as they recognize the familiar hushed but purposeful hum of activity lingering throughout the stacks and reading areas, and librarians who remain the epitome of helpful professionalism.

Librarians are a far cry from the tired caricature of a fussy, bespectacled spinster with a severe bun and a penchant for shushing patrons. They have master’s degrees, come from diverse backgrounds, and are bound by their “lifelong love of learning and spirit to serve,” said Natalie Basmaciyan, library services manager for Newport Beach.

And they continue to look for new ways to be of use. Newport’s latest plan is to add a passport area with office supplies and a notary service.

“It’s a welcoming, happy place,” said Hetherton. “We’re all about, ‘Come on in.’”

The neighborly attitude is effective. The Newport Beach library system — including the Balboa, Corona Del Mar, and Mariners branches — averages 15,000 visitors a week, making it second only to the city’s beaches in popularity.

I strolled around Central Library one recent afternoon, among the students toiling at their studies; older folks consumed with projects; kids playing games and immersed in books; readers draped sideways over upholstered arm chairs.

Tax forms were laid on a table along with information on how to find assistance with filings. Promotional materials highlighted a wide array of services — career training, AP practice tests, music and art appreciation programs, craft workshops, and college planning sessions.

A librarian spotted me gazing at a bulletin board.

“Are you finding what you need?” she asked.

I nodded. I had rediscovered my old friend, the municipal library, and I was happy to be home.

Patrice Apodaca is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, and is the coauthor of “A Boy Named Courage: A Surgeon’s Memoir of Apartheid.” She lives in Newport Beach.