Monday, September 22, 2014

In Praise of the Public Library

I found this book

on the new book shelf at our local library.  It's a compilation of photos of libraries taken by Robert Dawson between 1994 and 2012.  There is a foreward by Bill Moyers, an afterword by Ann Patchett and essays by Isaaac Asimov, Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Lamott, Philip Levine, Dr. Seuss, Charles Simic, Amy Tan, E.B. White and others.  The photos range from the grandiose

dome of central library in Milwaukee, WI

to the bare bones

abandoned library in the deserted town of Jeffrey City, WY 

and the essays highlight the more-than-ever need for the public space that libraries have provided over the last two centuries.

For me, the library has always been a haven through the years.  I didn't really discover public libraries until my family moved from Maryland to New Jersey when I turned 13.  It was a difficult move for me on many levels; I was socially inept, shy and lacking in confidence which made the transition from the single-sex private schools I had attended up to that point to the co-ed public schools in our new town fairly traumatic.  I sank like a stone.  But, our new town had  a big, lovely library with librarians who could spot one who needed a life jacket. I was given my own library card and shown to the reference section where I opened a world of art, architecture, nature and cultures that brought me back to the surface and launched me into the stratosphere.  I was hooked.  In all the moves I've made over the years, the very first thing I have done after unpacking the dishes was to head to the library and get my card!  It's no wonder, then, that I ended up working in libraries in our school district.  

But times change, and so have libraries.  Once the repository of books, they are now a combination of computer lab, social service annex and havens for the homeless and/or mentally ill now that our society no longer seeks to care for them.  Many of the photos in this book are of libraries that have had to close because of lack of funding. Ann Lamott's essay tells of the 2004 "emergency read-in" at the library in Salinas, CA, that was in danger of closing.  This is Steinbeck country, how could this be? They managed to draw enough high profile entertainers to keep the funding going, but if it can happen in Salinas, it can (and has) happen elsewhere. 

In Bellingham, we have tried to encourage our city leaders to build a new library several times over the last 10 years without success.  This despite the fact that for years our circulation statistics for a town this size were the highest in the country. Because of the economic downturn they had to cut hours and days they were open. The city did, however, manage to build a giant new art museum and restored our old movie theater into a new venue for concerts and such.  The fees and tickets for these are out of reach of half the population of the city, but the poor and marginalized don't count these days.  So who cares if there's a library to serve them?

I was amazed by some of the photos of the libraries in this book and I admit I was envious.  Maybe the "new library" will evolve out of the new Little Free Library movement.  Several of these boxes have sprung up in town, but I haven't actually seen anyone taking or replacing a book.  Somehow, it's not quite the same.  And I still want a library card!

1 comment:

Les Hon said...

I remember well when my mom took us to the Lynden Library for the first time...I was so proud! And every summer, we three girls were voracious readers trying to get our summer readers reward. In fact, I love libraries so much that I'm trying to make one of my own! #neverenoughbookshelves