In Praise of Libraries

AmpersandI have this good friend who I first met in 8th grade. She transferred to my school from the only other junior high in town and made a pretty significant first impression. She was a bit of an outcast, like me. Bit of a punk edge. Bit of a rebel. Huge Billy Idol fan.

I suppose it was only natural that now, probably three decades from first meeting her, she’s a librarian, an information professional, at a prestigious college back east.  I wanted to be a librarian myself when I first moved to Seattle. If I had finished my degree, I might have been. In my experience, librarians like knowing stuff. They like knowing weird stuff–little kernels that they stumbled upon and hold like candles against the dark, like rare gems buried in coffee cans in the back yard to haul out and examine at their leisure. They like sharing that stuff with anyone who is interested.

That’s not exclusive to librarians, mind you. But they add another, crucial level to it. Not only do librarians know stuff, they know how to find more stuff. Even stuff that they’re not personally well versed in. They know how to dig. They know the arcane knowledge of how to find not just stuff, but the right stuff.

Growing up a weird kid in a small town, libraries were sanctuaries. There weren’t very many people there who would judge you unless you had the misfortune of encountering the librarian who thought you were reading too much, or above your level. And yes, I know a few people for whom that was the case.

Some kids were raised by wolves. I was raised by libraries.

Explains a lot now, doesn’t it?

My dad was a librarian at a small liberal arts college, and my mom had been trained as a teacher, so books were always greatly encouraged. Between trips to the public library with my mom and brothers and being dropped off at the college library when she had intermural sports of some kind, I always felt at home among the stacks. I was drawn to “spooky stories,” tales of true hauntings, and the miscellaneous “unsolved mysteries” like big foot and the Bermuda Triangle. When I exhausted the shelves of the downstairs kid’s collection, I went upstairs to the main collection. That library building is gone now, replaced by a newer facility elsewhere, and I haven’t even been in that old library for probably 20 years, but I can still tell you exactly where that shelf was, can draw you what is now an outdated map. It’s imprinted in my DNA.

There’s a misconception that library brats are anti-social, that they’re all introverts who have no friends. I don’t think that’s the case at all. While I certainly went through phases where I was a bit introverted, I always had friends. And certainly while younger I spent a lot of time with my brothers playing. But I also valued quiet time and the magic of crawling inside a book for a few hours.

I can’t imagine what my life would be like without access to the library as a kid.

Being surrounded by stories, both real and imagined, helped me realize that my dry little mountain town wasn’t all there was in the world. It made me realize anything was possible. Anything I wanted to read was there, available to me, for free, with zero risk! If I picked up a book and realized I didn’t like it, I could just start another. It allowed me to explore. To question. To dream.

I have always been, and always will be, a dreamer.

The good friend who inspired this post recently mentioned National Librarian’s Day which is coming up on April 16th, in the United States, at least. Local mileage may vary. The thing is, for us library kids, that day is kind of year round. Libraries (along with the post office) used to be the heart of urban communities. They were the anchors of urban planning, built with an understanding that certain public services are important to a civilized society. Libraries were built around the concept that knowledge, information, the written word, were important, and that should be made available for anyone who wanted it. Libraries are, at least in theory, egalitarian spaces that allow us to make ourselves–and by extension society–better.

Libraries were never designed for profit, and now people seem outraged that they cost money. And hey, the internet has everything you need now anyway, right? And it’s free, provided you own a computer and can afford internet access!

With city and county budgets getting tighter and tighter, services are being cut. Operating hours cut. Collections sold. Libraries shuttered or privatized. Access to a world of possibility is going away, and with it the librarian who are there to serve the knowledge and those who seek it.

The portals to knowledge are in danger of getting tighter and tighter. And there are few real gatekeepers on an internet rife with sponsored content, opinion and baseless “facts” offered up as truth. That’s fine if you’re willing to do the work and fact-check or look for multiple sources, you know, like you might in a library. But most people are one click away from being well-intentioned but ill-informed, and it’s heartbreaking.

So get involved, whether it’s lobbying your local government for better funding, backing ballot initiatives or levies to support libraries, actually using the library one more day a week, or bringing the librarians there an occasional doughnut or coffee gift card.

You never know who those kids roaming the stacks might grow up to be.

One thought on “In Praise of Libraries

  1. Your post reminds me of the meme that reads, “Google will give you 1,000 answers; A librarian will give you the right one.”

    I think it is sad and a bit tragic that many libraries are “upgrading” to digital-only collections and become research spaces. Yes, there is room for that. Those places need to exist. But, not at the expense of those beautiful places filled with tall shelves and rows of paper books holding back an unseen enemy of ignorance and uncivility. It was a true fortress, those old libraries and we are losing the outposts that kept our intellectual enemies at bay.

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