Buckle up, y’all. We’re wrapping up National Library Week and I’ve got some stuff to say about it.
For starters, never has there been a more necessary time to talk about the importance of public libraries than now – so let’s chat. If you love and support your local public library, then kudos to you. If you actively dislike, and/or don’t see the need for public libraries then I can empathize. My family was banned from our local public library when I was a child because we never returned anything on time. We paid all our fines and always eventually returned The Birdcage and the R.L.Stein books, but it was whenever our mom – who was a single parent of three, mind you – had time to drive us to the library, as we weren’t within walking distance. The librarian’s world was black and white, you were either on time or you weren’t, and so after a particularly colorful exchange with my mom, our privileges were officially revoked. They had taken away access to my one true love, stories, and for that I hated them.
I hated them for a long time. That hate kept me out of any public library for 10 years; until I was a freshman in college in a new city and needed to use the public library for research. It took me several days to work up the nerve to walk through the doors of the Hennepin County Public Library downtown Minneapolis. The building was stunning, as they had just completed a multi-million dollar remodel, but it was the librarians that caught me off guard. Anticipating a decrepit old woman, much like the one who banned me and my family 10 years prior, I was utterly flabbergasted to find a young woman covered in tattoos, with dreadlocks that I could smell from across the counter and… what’s that? Hair? Yes. It was her armpit hair poking out to say hello from under her t-shirt sleeve. She did not fit the bill for what I thought a librarian should be, not in the slightest.
I had crossed the rainbow and found a whole new world, and it was one that welcomed me with open (hairy-pitted) arms. I signed up for a library card, and off I went to explore the automated stacks that held religious texts for school-work, the beefy collection on homosexuality and the sacrilegious novels of Christopher Moore for my own personal reading (it was a weird time in my life). I voraciously devoured book after book as I fell more and more in love with the library.
Fast forward another 12 years, and my family rarely sets foot in any public library (thanks to the bitter taste left over from the banning), while I’m off working for public libraries and in grad school for my Master of Science in Library and Information Science (don’t worry, the irony of this is not lost on me). Everything that I do, is in some way connected to the public library. I write and illustrate children’s books that end up in public libraries. I work in a public library. Many of my grad classes are focused on the public library. I have inadvertently steeped myself in the world of public libraries; and what a world – and what a time to be a part of it!
After working in several different types of informal education settings (museums, zoos, camps, etc.) it wasn’t until I moved to Philadelphia and was hired by the Free Library of Philadelphia that I realized the importance of free access to information. In all of the other places I had worked, there was a price to be paid in order to gain access to the services I was providing. A fee to attend camp, to enter the museum, to visit the zoo, etc. With the library, it was free and open access to all, and that is a powerful thing. Free and open access to ALL information is the most powerful thing, but we know that libraries do not house all information for they are censored and have incomplete collections. What? Censored? Yes. Books are banned pretty regularly, with the majority of them being picture books (think angry parents/politicians demanding the removal of controversial texts that don’t aline with their own personal beliefs).
Nevertheless, libraries are a deep well of information and serve as the launchpad for inquisitive minds, young and old alike. On a more practical and day-to-day basis, libraries are a safe place for people to turn to. Whether it’s children or teens needing some place to ride out the 3 hour gap between when school gets out and when their guardian/s get home or a homeless man needing a cool place to beat the midday heat, public libraries are there for all.
Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest. – Larry Bird Johnson
Here’s an interesting tidbit for you; more than half of the world’s population (as of March 2017) does not have access to the internet. Yep. It’s easy to get swept up in having the newest smart phones/watches/tvs/etc. but for many people, the free internet provided by libraries via computers is the only interaction they have with the digital world. Many children rely on those computers to do their homework, adults use them to type out their resumes and apply for jobs, and for many they provide a daily dose of the wonderful/weird world that is the internet.
Because this is America, and everything is about money, the library has been economized and forced to quantify success with monetary measurements. This is criminal, for the real benefits of libraries (transformative change, community bonding, free and open access to information, etc.) are not easily measured.
“libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.” – Anne Herbert
Regardless of this, it is fairly simple to measure the monetary savings that libraries provide when looked at the circulation records. My local library that I work for has calculated the community’s savings since the beginning of 2017, and the numbers are staggering. By checking out materials at the library rather than purchasing them, patrons in Naperville have saved over $13,000,000 in the past 3.5 months.
More importantly, libraries are transforming their communities and the lives of their patrons. Librarians are working hard to create impactful programs that span the range of literacy skills for new parents to movie making and technology assistance. Libraries play host to group gatherings, provide the stage for research and inquiry and house the most sacred of all human documents: books.
“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” – William Styron
Reading creates empathy, for it helps you to look at the world from a perspective other than your own. By transporting you to new worlds, and introducing you to new friends books have the power to absolutely and irrevocably change a life.
Again, if you love and support your local public library then kudos to you & keep it up. With funding for libraries and museums being threatened, now is the time to let your congressmen and women how vital these institutions are (see resources below). For the rest of you, I encourage you to give the library another look. Check out what all they have going on (pun intended), and how they can connect you with the local community and the world at large. For the love of learning, of your communities, of stories and of democracy – support your public library.
“The only thing you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.” – Albert Einstein
Resources to connect with libraries: