public libraries

2 posts

Loss of Libraries: A Hole in Our Social Fabric

 

The Year of Living Dangerously, a. k. a. 2020, will be remembered as a year of many losses, greatest of which is human life. There will be many small losses to account for, too, including human interaction, jobs, and in some cases, sanity.

Less noticed on the list of these losses is the shuttering of public libraries. It’s only been a few weeks, but already I begin to notice this hole in the social fabric. Admittedly, some people don’t even use their town libraries or the inter-library loan program. Hell, some people don’t even read. But then there’s the rest of us. The ones who consume two kinds of food—that on our plates and that between covers.

When the libraries shut, we were all frozen in time, left with the books we happened to have checked out when towns and cities called the whole thing off. In my case, it is only four books, now all finished.

If only I had a Nostradamus inkling that this was coming! I would have checked out a couple dozen, as there is no limit. Instead, I have these four with their due dates on perpetual hold. And one inter-library request that still reads “In Transit,” even though it is no more transiting than Plymouth Rock.

If you are a library fan like me, it is probably for the same reasons. Purchasing books to feed your reading habit is a fast lane to the poor farm, and money wasn’t exactly flowing before our time of troubles, never mind during them.

Without the library, then, we are forced to turn to our own bookshelves. Isn’t it odd how they are populated with books we always said we would read but didn’t? In some cases, these are books we purchased, maybe with a birthday or Christmas gift card, thinking we couldn’t wait, and then could.

Scouring my own shelves, I see a few examples. Chief among them is Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov. I’ve had it so long, I can’t even tell you why I bought it. Yet there it sits, as apparently the main character likes to do. Perhaps these cabin days are perfect for Oblomov’s temperament. Perhaps it’s time to pick up this still-pristine copy of Goncharov’s classic and dive in.

Then there’s the door-stopping biography Grant by Ron Chernow. I read and enjoyed Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. I love reading about the Civil War. So I purchased it, sure that I would be getting to it sooner rather than later.

And yet…. And yet…. Once it arrived, I felt little inclination to pick it up, favoring instead shorter books or books of the moment, the kind that constantly catch my fancy.

I have a beautiful clothbound copy of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, which I actually started to read once upon a year. The bookmark still sits around 1/3rd of the way in. Bookmarks are patient things, ready and willing for readers who are once again ready and willing. Now there’s an option, I’m telling myself. Good old Jean Valjean.

Then there are the collections. At one time, in the early days of its inception, the Library of America started to sell hardcover copies of American classics. I purchased around 30 books by subscription before bailing due to mounting costs. Do you know how many of those books have gone untouched? They’re pretty to look at, with spines colorful as confetti, yet they gather a Library of American Dust.

I have a complete set of Mark Twain books, too, and though I have read many of these (admirably enough), I have not read just as many. Any of those would be ready and willing, should I step up. I need only step up!

Yessiree, Bob. These are the times that try men’s reading souls. These are also the times where readers have to look within, and in this case, “within” means our own bookshelves where all of us keep, free of board, some unread orphans.

How about you? What’s on your unread bookshelf?

 

Yes, You Can Judge a Town by Its Public Library

library

Most people judge a town by its school system. I judge it by its library.

How big is it? How versatile is its stock of books? How convenient are its hours, seven days a week?

Some towns I visit have beautiful fields for baseball, football, soccer. Some even have hockey arenas and sprawling golf courses. Lots of green that costs lots of green, but me, I like to see the green buying books, providing computers, hosting community events and readings. All at the town library.

A great library sends a signal: We care about the intellectual and artistic health of our citizens. Sports are great and have their place, but we open many, many doors to far away lands and new frontiers. We are the antidote to fake cries of fake news. We are, in fact, the enemy of fascism and anti-intellectualism.

Granted, no matter how vast and lovely, no library can cater to every taste. Thus, the inter-library loan system. Yes, I buy books and try to support writer royalties, but I’d quickly go under financially if I purchased every book I wanted to read.

Enter inter-library loan. Almost 90% of the books I seek can be found via this system. Place a hold, wait, and soon enough, the book arrives in port. Your home library.

Downsides? Not many. Some books get written in, and depending on the scribe, that can be an annoyance (though I have, on occasion, become as fascinated by the annotator as I have by the author).

Other books are marred with food and drink stains. What on earth causes people to eat chocolate, sticky buns, or cake and frosting while reading a book? Sugary fingerprints are not cool. Nor are dog-ears, the ghost of bookmarks past.

But these are minor inconveniences. Overall, there is no greater institution than a public library. It is deserving not only of your patronage, but your charity. Give a donation each year. Give everyone free access to the wonders of fiction, essays, plays, poetry, and every Dewey Decimal-ed piece of nonfiction out there. Doing so makes you a soldier of democracy, knowledge, light. There is no better way to fight the dark forces around us.

It’s a dangerous world, after all. Always has been and always will be. And the Fifth Rider of the Apocalypse? It’s Ignorance. Public libraries are the best ways to combat it—the swords to smote it down. An informed public is the enemy of authoritarian weeds, wherever they may sprout.

Patronize and support your town’s library, and if it’s suffering from want and neglect and lack of taxpayer dollars, create a committee to turn that intolerable situation around.

Sooner rather than too-later.