A homeless man named Daniel was engrossed in a Barbara Kingsolver novel when his backpack was stolen recently, and Laura Moulton was determined to set things to right.
Ms. Moulton, 44, an artist, writer and adjunct professor of creative nonfiction, did not know Daniel’s last name, his exact age, or really even how to find him — they had met only once. But she knew the novel, “Prodigal Summer,” and that was a start. So, armed with a new copy of the book, off she went.
Such is the life of a street librarian.
“Is Daniel around?” she asked a patron, Laura King, having just trundled up on the Street Books three-wheeler on a recent afternoon for a stop near the Willamette River northeast of downtown.
Ms. King, 41, a reader of inspirational biographies and essays, had stepped over from an area of tarps and tents, and was peering into the big wooden book cabinet mounted on the trike’s front end. She shook her head.
“I have a book for him, which I’d be happy to leave with you,” Ms. Moulton said.
Ms. King shrugged and said, “If something happens, and I don’t see him before I see you, I’ll give it back.”
Ms. Moulton’s reply, extending her hand with the book she had bought that morning, was pure librarian: “You ought to read it in the meantime,” she said.
A concrete reality anchors Street Books to the real word: Portlanders are readers. The Multnomah County Library has the third-highest circulation among public libraries in the nation, after New York’s and King County’s in Seattle, according to the American Library Association’s public library division. The ranking is all the more impressive for Multnomah’s size, having only a little more than half of King County’s population, and a quarter of New York’s.
A second reality is that like so many other institutions in the digital age, libraries are redefining themselves, scrambling to stay relevant and find the toehold that keeps them linked to a city’s life.
Multnomah’s library, for example, helped by a grant from the foundation created by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, started a project this spring called My Librarian, which enlists library staff members as online book-list mavens who share their reading passions with library patrons by email or video chat.
The Street Books project is nothing if not messy. The librarians — the three salaried employees, including Ms. Moulton, are paid $60 a week for a three-hour shift — fill their carts based on their tastes and their patrons’ tastes.
Ms. Taliaferro, a high-energy red-haired 37-year-old who arrived in Portland on a bus in 1995 and never left, came by Ms. Moulton’s cart this week looking to build a reading list for a friend in the low-income housing project where she lives. She said she hardly ever uses a regular library because of the rules and fines and library cards, and the worries about losing books. Street Books has no return policy at all, except a kind of when-you-are-done-reading, next-time-we-meet handshake agreement.
“You wouldn’t be able to get a copy of ‘Lord of the Flies’ would you?” she said. “I need ‘Lord of the Flies’; I need ‘1984’; and I need
‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ ” she said.
“You’re going straight for the summer beach reads,” Ms. Moulton said, writing down the titles in her notebook.
“He’s never read them, never even heard of them,” Ms. Taliaferro said of her friend. So she’s fixing that — building a reading list for him based on her own experiences and memories of books that resonated long after the final pages.
“I remember reading them and being changed by each one of them — how can you even know what the world is until you’ve got those stories in you?” she said.