Friday, February 17, 2017

Thoughts on Libraries

My local library branch has been in temporary quarters for a couple of years while the county built a new facility on the site of the old one. The transient location wasn’t much, some space they shook loose in the town hall building. They did what they could to keep the kids’ stuff available—and good on them for that—but too cramped for browsing.

The new building opened a couple of weeks ago and it’s beautiful. Lots of space for all the books, plus open areas for seating, studying, meetings, teens, and kids, including a dinosaur skeleton in the floor. Really a nifty facility which will get me back in the habit of making regular visits.

It also got me to thinking about libraries in general. I have long believed that should some alien culture come to Earth after humans have killed themselves off, what they’ll be most impressed with are libraries. They are the physical manifestation of what separates us from the “lesser” animals, as humans are the only creatures on the planet able to transfer knowledge without direct interaction. We’re uniquely able to write down instructions, thoughts, dreams, laws, entire philosophies, science, medicine, you name it, and share them with people around the world across generations. Some may argue the Internet now does those things better, but what is the Internet but a vast library?

One thing a physical library does the Internet cannot is create a sense of belonging. I hadn’t thought about this much until I saw a video (on the Internet, of course) of Dennis Lehane speaking at the Crime Fiction Academy at The Center for Fiction. Lehane was there to talk about the twenty things that made him a writer, of which the first ten were public libraries. Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

Libraries…are where people actually do something to show they care about the population of a city and they don’t get paid for it. It’s really an amazing concept. When I was a little kid we couldn’t afford books in our home. It was a luxury. We had some encyclopedias, but I think it was because my dad didn’t see the salesman coming that day and that was pretty much all we had. So my mom heard from the nuns—in what was maybe the only nice thing the nuns said about me—that I liked to read, so she took me to the library and she got me a library card. I still remember everything about that card, I swear to God….This concept that I can just go back here—every day, much as I want—and take books out for free. Just as simple as that. Take them out for free, take them home, read them, was something that to this day I still can’t get my mind around. What libraries say to kids from the wrong side of the tracks is, very much, that you matter. That this building cares about you, and this building is actually funded by the city, so that means the city cares about you, and it takes other funds from the state, so that means the state cares about you. There might even be a little money from the federals, so that means the country cares about you. You matter. That’s what a library says.

(The entire speech is well worth your time. YouTube has it in two segments of half an hour or so each. Informative and great fun to boot.)

So, yeah. Libraries. Mankind’s most precious invention. Like so many of mankind’s best and purest accomplishments, now under attack. Support your library. Borrow books so those in power know it’s being used. Donate old books to the book drive. At election time, vote Yes on the referenda asking for bonds to build and maintain them. It’s a painless way to do something for someone else, someone you may never meet, or even be aware of, to tell them they matter. That’s what a library does.

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