Lately I've been seeing more and more about the dim future that awaits our country's libraries, and I worry about it. With the advent of e-books and advances in technology and communication, we should be seeing the face of the library as we know it, expanding to accommodate these new means of information access. Instead, I fear, we are witnessing the demise of one of the greatest public institutions of all time. This article, though brief, shares a quick snapshot of some of these concerns, which include publishers that refuse to sell e-books to libraries and major booksellers whose interests are not aligned with the preservation of libraries. Author Harry McCracken cites Carson Block of Carson Block Consulting as follows:
"Libraries, Block argued, aren't just book-loaning facilities. They're also about equal opportunity and community, and perhaps they should rebrand themselves as being about access, not books."
Citing apathy as a major threat to libraries, he goes on to argue that "we've always needed libraries; now more than ever, libraries need us". I couldn't agree with this statement more.
Looking back upon my childhood, I can attest to the profound effect that my local library had on me. I grew up in Springdale, OH., a Cincinnati suburb. The nearest library was in the adjacent city of Forest Park. I remember when I was old enough to sign my name and how thrilled I was, when I discovered that mastery of one's signature was all that was required to be awarded a library card! I still remember that first library card - it was manila yellow in color, and the librarian typed my name and address on the card, then had me sign at the bottom. I treasured that card and revered it, proudly extending it as if it was my personal calling card every time I checked out a book.
I remember that library as though I had set foot in it yesterday. A long, unlit tiled hallway opened into a glorious, well lighted carpeted space, filled throughout with books. Children's books were up three steps, then down another three to the right, in a space filled with beanbag chairs and low shelves for little hands to reach picture books. Walls were decorated with posters of illustrations from children's books, and if we were lucky, we could catch a librarian reading a story out loud to a captive group of wide-eyed children. I spent many happy hours there, and recall repeatedly checking out a book called "The Twelve Dancing Princesses", based on a fairy tale. The story itself was draw enough, but the real attraction was the incredible artwork that filled every page and brought the words and my imagination to life.Recently I found a more recent version of that book at my library, filled with equally lovely illustrations, and read it to Alekha at bedtime a few nights ago - she was enthralled with the story and begged me to read it again, and could I please renew it so she could keep it a little longer?
Fiction for older children was adjacent to this space, and just behind those were non-fiction books, where many a weekend was spent riffling through books on topics from outer space to submarines, farming to foreign countries and occupations to autobiographies, volumes of knowledge to assist me in producing the endless book reports that were assigned by teachers.
Adult books, reference books and periodicals were located on the opposite side of the library. The entire space was humming with activity: small children were read to by young mothers, older children seated at tables worked diligently on book reports or homework, or in many cases socialized a little too loudly, until they were inevitably shushed by the librarian. Grown ups wandered about the adult sections, little old ladies with bags of knitting perused periodicals, elderly gentlemen spread open newspapers or played at chess. From time to time, there was an installation of modern artwork or perhaps children's art to grace the walls, and the occasional ice cream social or book sale drew the masses. The library offered cool comfort and a respite from the heat of the day in summer, and warmth and welcome to those suffering cabin fever in the winter. All felt a sense of belonging here. The door was not barred regardless of age, race, ethnicity, religion, or socioeconomic standing. Here, the haves and the have-nots converged, brought together by a common interest: the love of reading and community.
In the middle of this hive of activity, the librarians presided over the circular information desk, always kindly, peering at me over spectacles, ready to assist me with the many questions I had. Requests for a book were met with a lesson in how to utilize the card catalog. I was taken to the humble card catalog, predecessor of the modern search engine, where I was taught the Dewey Decimal system for the cataloging of books. I loved pulling open the sturdy oak drawers and riffling through the typed index cards to locate a needed book. Tiny pencil in hand, I'd jot the call number down before heading off in pursuit of the elusive book.
On weekends, we begged for a trip to the library. My mother always happily obliged, turning three little girls loose in the library while she went to seek out books of her own in the adult section. These little trips were much needed, anticipated and enjoyed in the most soul-satisfying way.
Summer was eagerly anticipated each year for the library's summer reading program for children, which the library called Remmus Gnidaer Margorp. Our childish belief that Mr. Remmus Gnidaer Margorp was a generous benefactor and patron of the library subsided when one of us figured out that "Remmus Gnidaer Margorp" was "Summer Reading Program" spelled backwards!) With eager anticipation, we filled up our reading sheets with each book we read, and jubilantly presented it to the librarian at the end of summer to collect our prizes for reading, usually a book bag filled with small assorted goodies, including a bookmark, a certificate of completion, a few stickers and an eraser or pencil, objects of insignificant value but proudly won in the eyes of a child.
I regard these experiences with a mix of nostalgia and fond affection, and attempt to recreate these experiences for my own child. While the library has changed considerably since I was a child, the ideals upon which libraries were founded have not. It is still one place where everyone, regardless of background, can access learning and books. I still feel the anticipation of finding a book I want to read, and am delighted to see the same excitement in my daughter's eyes as we set foot in the library and she runs off to the children's section on her quest for a book (or ten).
Our library boasts a wealth of programming: tea and holiday parties for children, toddler and family story times, musical groups, poetry shares, book clubs, book and bake sales, films, instuction for homework help, annual summer reading programs, the list goes on. Last year our library ended up on the ballot at voting time due to a cut in funding. We saw reductions in programming and in staffing. Through a visible and vocal campaign, our city passed the levy for increased funding to the library, much to my relief and the relief of others who have come to love and support our libraries.
And this is happening not just in our country, but globally as well. Nicky Wire of the Welsh Alternative Rock band Manic Street Preachers stated in an article for the Guardian:
It's hard not to feel utterly despondent at the current plight of public libraries. Along with the NHS and the BBC, our libraries are some of the few truly remarkable British institutions left. So often absolutely ordinary in appearance, a good library should offer escape routes down the most extraordinary avenues, pathways into different worlds from the one you've left outside. Ridding our villages, towns and cities of libraries, which are essential in shaping a nation's consciousness, seems like a direct attack on the soul of the country.
I shudder to think of the day when libraries may close their doors to the public forever and become an antiquated institution of the past. May we never lose these beacons of light and learning. For all who share in "the love of learning, the sequestered nooks, and all the sweet serenity of books", I echo Harry McCracken's statement that now, more than ever, libraries need us. It's time for us to give back to these noble institutions, through recognition that by preserving the past, we preserve the future for our children and generations to come.