It's something Chip Ward saw every year when he was assistant director of Salt Lake City's public library system. Ward was trained to organize information, to file papers and data. But his job, he says, was as much about knowing regulars as it was shelving books. He wrote an arresting piece on the subject entitled How the Public Library Became the Heartbreak Hotel. Emilio Estevez is now reportedly producing a movie based on its themes; the working title is "The Public" and it will be based in L.A.
There was Crash, a happy drunk with a deep scar that cleaved his face from forehead to chin. There were Mick and Bob who suffered seizures. Margi had dementia. John, open wounds he wouldn't treat. For each, the library was as much a home as anywhere else.
Ward worked at Salt Lake City's central branch, an architecturally arresting five-story structure that opened in 2003. A wedge-shaped, glass-fronted wonder that features cafes, an art gallery and one of the world's largest collections of graphic novels, the branch is also the Utah capital's de facto daytime shelter for the homeless and a default hangout for street kids and misfits.
Ward spent five years at the branch. After he retired, he wrote an essay about his work. Published online, the piece became a minor sensation. It was e-mailed from library to library before breaking into the mainstream.