I have been pondering libraries a lot lately. They have been my refuge for most of my life. Maybe it is because I currently work in a little library, The Mancos Public Library in rural SW Colorado, or maybe it is just because I love libraries!
My parents were upper middle class and my dad was an educator, but I was never read to as a child, except for scripture or religious orders of nuns for my consideration . For my sixteenths birthday I did receive a book listing them all. As a child, none of this was greatly appreciated. It is a wonder that this didn't result in my loathing reading!
Growing up in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, I began to sneak away at the age of ten or eleven, to the little local library. It was a Carnegie Library (I think) small but oh so sweet. The children’s section was in the basement with a separate entrance in the rear of the building accessed down a dirt driveway. I remember the excitement as I ran down that driveway and opened the old green door that led down a musty set of cement stairs, finally opening up into the haven that was the children’s library. Because it was a basement there were windows, but they were very high and had ledges. Every ledge hosted a beautiful geranium, usually in brilliant bloom. I remember the librarian with such detail. She was very old in my memory, but rather sprightly for an old woman. She was probably fifty! She wore dark dresses with lace collars, old lady sensible black shoes, and had her greying hair loosely caught in bun at the nape of her neck. Very librarianish. She always smelled of lavender and talcum powder. I also remember that she was quite cheerful giving me a welcoming smile every time I ventured down those steps. I regret that I can not recall her name. She was very kind. I was painfully shy and she never forced boundaries as some adults did, but would always show me to the books I was looking for, or suggest new ones. I think she knew who my father was and that he was pretty strict and censored my reading unmercifully. She gave me a book bag to carry the books home, but also hid the titles, although that remained unspoken. I did after all, have to walk three miles round trip to get there and home again. There were books on shelves all around the room, a red linoleum floor, and big oak tables in the center that had some books on display, and another geranium.
Much to the dismay of my father, some of my favorites were the Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew and the Hardy boys. Those books saved me in those days. They gave me the flights of fancy I so required. I could enter worlds bigger than I could dream of, go on adventures with explorers, join the heroes as they crushed the villains, and generally have fantastic adventures. I now know of Samuel Beckett, I didn’t then, but his words applied then as now…when we read, a voice comes to us from seemingly nowhere and whispers ever so gently, “Imagine!” I remember being excruciatingly diligent about returning them on time, probably because it gave me a chance to escape to my safe haven again and find more books.
I have become an avid reader and my love of Libraries has endured and increased throughout my entire life. I recently read a book entitled The Public Library, A photographic essay by Robert Dawson with a forward by Bill Moyers, and afterword by Ann Patchett and reflections by Isaac Asimov, Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Lamott, Phillip Levine, Dr. Seuss, Charles Simic, Amy Tan, E.B. White and others. It is a magnificent little book and was probably the catalyst for my Library thoughts.
As Anne Patchet said in her afterword: “Even with all the cutting of budgets, and hours, a library is still the best example of our government at work. We may never had full equality in our legal system, our schools, or our healthy care, but in our libraries there is parity; all are welcome, all books are free; and if you can wait a little while, all books are available.”
“So know this - if you love your library, use your library. Support libraries in your words and deeds…Libraries support people…”who love to read, who long to learn, who need a place to go and sit and think. Makes sure that in your good fortune you remember to support their quest for a better life. That ’s what a library promises us, after all; a better life. And that’s what libraries have delivered.”
Some other thoughts about libraries from that remarkable little book, The Public Library :
Civic Memory and Identity
The civic memory of our nation’s communities is often housed in their local public libraries…without these memories we would not be able to remember who we are, where we come from or where we are going.
What to libraries say about who we are as a nation? One measure is through the wide spectrum of poverty and wealth on display at local public libraries. After a natural disaster, libraries sometimes act as a place of shelter or healing. For communities experiencing economic or man made disasters, libraries can do much to help as well.
Philanthropy has always played an important role in the growth of public libraries. Perhaps the greatest gift that steel magnate Andrew Carnegie gave to America in the early twentieth century was to double the number of public libraries in the United States. Some would argue that this type of giving is a self centered act designed to create monuments to the patron. Others merely wish that wealthy people such as Carnegie had been even more generous. Philanthropic giving continues to play an important role in today’s public libraries.
Urban and Rural Libraries
In small towns the public library may be the only noncommercial and nonreligious space where people can gather to meet neighbors and sustain the ties that create a sense of community. Libraries are among the few local government institutions that people interact with on a regular basis. They may be the only form of government that some like. I found many rural and small town libraries to be completely filled with active library patrons.
Literature and Learning
The traditional mission of the library has been to help people gain access to information and ideas. Asimov wrote, “The library was the ope door to wonder and achievement.” Public libraries continue to be that open door for countless Americans.
Love your Library, use your library and please, support your library in any way you can!