I believe in the public library. The unfettered exchange of information – in person, in print, & online – is the aspect of the library I most cherish. A public library is democracy in action, a place whose explicit purpose is to share a collection of knowledge with the community.
When I was a child, once a week my mother carted us to the library, housed in an old sandstone building next to the railroad tracks. That library was a classic 19th- century building, smelling of damp air and old pages, with ceiling-high stacks of leather and cloth-bound books and an absolute requirement to whisper. The children’s section was in the basement, a miniature version of upstairs with smaller chairs and more pictures in the books. On the ride home, I could never resist beginning to read the book on top of my stack. Sometimes I made myself so carsick that my mother had to pull to the side of the road — but still I read in the car. The promise of a new world inside each book was too tantalizing to ignore.
Decades later, I’m still enthralled by the public library. Each time I visit, I can hardly believe I get to carry a stack of books away. In the past months, I have borrowed CDs to study French, learned about cat behavior, attempted to puzzle through current politics, and chosen fiction recommended by library staff. The library provides me access to whatever I might wish to explore – this is an amazing privilege.
As an adult, I’ve moved numerous times, and I don’t feel truly at home in a new place until I’ve obtained a library card. More than a street address or a job, my library card means I’m beginning to be part of a community and that I have access not only to the collection of books, movies, and journals, but outrageously, to a reference librarian. In this age of search engines and online databases, a librarian whose job is to answer questions seems a quaint luxury. Like the large screen movie theatre, the reference librarian is a tradition I hope never gives way to advancing technology. The joy of solving a puzzle with another human being, engaging in discovery, and being able to ask absolutely anything is a remarkable freedom that exists in few places in the world.
My current public library, the King County Library system in Washington State, is a true community center offering homework tutoring, computer access, comfortable chairs and tables sized for children and adults, English language classes for immigrants, and a place out of the persistent cold and rain of the Northwest for people who have no other safe, warm place to go. Somehow, the library keeps adapting to the changing learning needs of our community.
One of my goals is to live life as if I’m a public library – willing to exchange information and tackle the most challenging questions, open to a growing and changing community, and welcoming to all who need access to knowledge – or just a safe place to get out of the rain.
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