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On Libraries

I love this little essay by the SF writer John Scalzi [1] about libraries. The older I get the more aware I am of how much libraries meant to me when I was younger. I was not the beneficiary of a very good education in the Birmingham city schools: in fact, I recall only two teachers that I believe I learned much from, one Miss Killian — who taught the “enrichment class” I was in from fifth through seventh grades, at the now-closed Elyton School [2] — and, at Banks High School, Mrs. Hendricks, my English teacher for two years. Aside from those two, I was basically on my own — but I had libraries.

From my birth to age 12, we lived in the west end of Birmingham, and the nearest library was the one in Pratt City. (The building I used was closed long ago, and, sad to say, its replacement was destroyed by the tornados of spring 2011 [3].) There I discovered book after book about baseball — I probably read Stan Musial’s autobiography six or seven times, though I have no idea what drew me to him, since he had retired by then, and I was an Atlanta Braves fan — and made my first explorations of science and technology. I can still remember the cover of a book on the building of dams, and the line drawings of airplanes in a neatly compact encyclopedia of every aircraft ever built.

My grandmother, who was an incessant reader of mysteries and, occasionally, Westerns, would take me to the library once every two weeks, and we would walk away staggering under the load of books we checked out. But before the two weeks were out we had read everything.

When we moved to East Lake we got a new library, a larger and more attractive one (and one that has recently underdone a very nice renovation [4]), but our habits remained the same: the regular visits, the bearing away of big piles of books, the voracious consumption. In that library I became acquainted with the whole history of science fiction, with the poetic prose of Loren Eiseley, with books of mathematical and logical puzzles — and even with poetry. I could draw you a pretty reliable map of that library as it was when I knew it, and could take you to my favorite shelves.

Most of what I now know that I consider worth knowing I learned not at school but at these libraries. By the standards of many cities and towns, including the one I live in now, they were not large or well-stocked; but they contained enough to keep a boy’s mind occupied and excited for many years. And when the schools let me down, the libraries did not. Perhaps I infer too much from my own experience, but I cannot help thinking that the health of a community is tied in significant ways to the health of its libraries.

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17 Comments To "On Libraries"

#1 Comment By Josh Brown On February 26, 2013 @ 9:59 am

I get the point you’re making, but I would restate it. The health of the library is the health of the mind. The health of the family is the health of the community. After all, it was your family (specifically, your grandmother) who took the time to take you to the library. I was also blessed to have a family that invested time in culturing my imagination and intelligence. Of course, I was also that kid that would pull a random encyclopaedia volume and read through it for kicks.

#2 Comment By njd On February 26, 2013 @ 10:21 am

Awhile back my local childhood library was closed as the county consolidated its libraries. I had moved away when it was closed, but I see it still, slung low and empty, with a low slowly sloping roof hung with icicles, when I drive to my parents. The newly renovated and expanded library is dynamic and meets the “modern” needs of the community with meeting spaces and rows of DVD. You still have the books, but the library atmosphere has been lost. It is a place of entertainment, not exploration. In a desire to be relevant the library has lost its place of wonder. At least for me.

#3 Comment By Elrond Hubbard On February 26, 2013 @ 10:25 am

I can’t see that your anecdotal experiences without reference to forgone alternatives is any reason to praise libraries. As far as I can tell they’re mostly crappy government bureaucracies that provide work for the unemployable whackjobs who come out of Universities. Welfare for half-educated feminists. Almost everything in the libraries is trash, and more and more they are specifically trying to keep anything cool or controversial out of them.

Try the internet. No stealing required.

#4 Comment By Dan Davis On February 26, 2013 @ 11:51 am

I very much take your point. While I can count more than just a couple of good teachers that I had, I grew up in small and medium-sized towns and took thorough advantage of the libraries. Most of what I learned, I learned on my own. But after a lifetime as a bookworm, the strange thing now is how few books I actually read any more, and how much time I spend online reading blogs like this one. And I’m glad to learn I wasn’t the only kid to read encyclopedias.

#5 Comment By Mike Nichols On February 26, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

I was born in Birmingham and grew up in East Lake. I attended Barrett School 1953-1961, then Woodlawn High and eventually Banks High.

The best teacher I ever had was my first grade teacher, Miss Hilliard. She took us across the street from Barrett School to the East Lake library, where we all got library cards.

I got a mediocre public school education at best, and the East Lake library was my lifeline. Like you, I can still draw a map of the shelves I favored over the years, from elementary school through high school.

As years went on, I haunted the main branch of the Birmingham library, not only bringing home armloads of books, but spending untold hours exploring the stacks and reading at the big oak tables.

All through my life (I am now 66) I have been a regular at the local library, as well as building a considerable personal library.

That little East Lake library was, without a doubt, life-changing for me.

It is distressing that misguided, unrepentant Philistines all over America see libraries as dispensable and an easy budget cut. It is cutting off untold millions of people, young and old, from one of the most vital sources of human flourishing.

#6 Comment By Michael Paulus On February 26, 2013 @ 4:45 pm

Many Americans would agree with you: “91% of Americans ages 16 and older say public libraries are important to their communities”: [5]

Melvil Dewey claimed that the public library was, along with the school and church, the third “great engine” of education.

#7 Comment By Alan Jacobs On February 27, 2013 @ 8:52 am

Mike Nichols, you are a man after my own heart! (I graduated from Banks in 1975, by the way.)

#8 Comment By grumpy realist On February 27, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

Elrond–wrong on all points. Local libraries are not “governmental”–unless you want to claim that the city or town is a “governmental entity” just by itself. It’s not my state taxes that go for my local library; it’s my real estate and city taxes. Librarians (not clerks) have degrees (usually Masters) in library science, which is a true, ‘onest skill. Wait until you’ve waltzed up to a librarian and asked for them to track down an obscure publication on the law of oil rigs–and have them figure out in fifteen minutes where it is and how to get it delivered to you.

I’ve worked in libraries all over the world, including the British Library, law libraries, the library of the Japanese Diet, and you are bloody mistaken if you think that “almost everything in libraries is trash.” Where else are you going to find a copy of Baldus’s Commentaries on the Law, Lyons edition of 1560?

#9 Comment By Myron Hudson On February 27, 2013 @ 5:56 pm

Once my wife and I lived on a small town in NJ. Around the corner from us, above the police station, was a tiny public library. We were in there once a week. I discovered writers I’d never encountered before. We read books that we still discuss sometimes.

Later in HI there was a public library down the street from us. We and our children were in there once a week. I discovered Patrick O’Brian there! Now both our children are avid readers and one is going for an MFA in poetry at Boise State University.

Here in southern OR we have a good public library and, further uptown, a university library. They both supported me though a years-long binge on the history of polar exploration. With a side interest in crime fiction.

I’d hate to live without a library.

#10 Comment By Keith J. Kelly On February 27, 2013 @ 10:43 pm

Frank Zappa wrote “Forget about the senior prom. Go to the library and educate yourself!”

#11 Comment By cka2nd On February 28, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

Dear grumpy realist: Amen!

Josh Brown: Yes, but the library can also be a haven for kids with shaky families, or a safe area for kids to wait for their parents to pick them up or get home.

njd: I don’t completely disagree, but there are still a lot of people in libraries reading books and using the DVD’s and Internet for exploration, not just entertainment, not to mention that exploration can also be entertaining.

Elrond Hubbard: I certainly oppose attempts by administrators, trustees and politicians to neuter librarians and libraries, to “run them more l ike a business” and treat library patrons like “consumers,” but you can still find a heck of a lot of literature and not just trashy fiction, or serious and even academic non-fiction instead of just celebrity memoirs in the the public libraries of supportive cities, towns and suburbs. And such books can be accessed from the smaller, more mass culture-ish neighborhood or village libraries through local networks or inter-library loan. And the Internet is not the be all and end all in the search for human knowledge.

Michael Paulus: Several years before the start of the Great Recession, voters in Albany, NY approved a multi-million dollar capital project for renovating or replacing virtually every one of our neighborhood libraries (the main branch is still a well-stocked dump). The results have been spectacular and patronage has increased. However, after the economy tanked, voters were forced to teach the Library Board that times had changed by rejecting a budget with significant tax increases and approving ones with more modest raises.

#12 Comment By David Naas On March 1, 2013 @ 8:59 pm

I too have fond memories of sitting in the “kids room” of my hometown library ( a former mansion) sitting in a bay window on a rainy Saturday afternoon, making friends with Huck, Jim, and Tom all over again.

#13 Comment By Robert On March 2, 2013 @ 4:35 am

Thomas Carlyle, perhaps anticipating Frank Zappa by a century, wrote: “The greatest university of all is a collection of books.”

#14 Comment By William Dalton On March 2, 2013 @ 12:37 pm

I hope the resources available here on the Web will be used by young people growing up today as we used the libraries in our schools and home towns to bring the world into our lives. The temptation is great to use your laptop or PDA for games and sordid timewasting. But, then, that has been true at libraries for years as well.

#15 Comment By sean carlson On March 2, 2013 @ 4:40 pm

My path was similar. Though my schools were good I was too adrift in la-la land to pay any attention. Only saving grace was being put next to the library shelf in 3rd grade. For some reason I became a voracious reader. Today I still use the Tulsa Central Library. I can’t remember the last time I bought a book. If the Library doesn’t have it I simply do an inter-library loan for only a dollar. Sometimes I think libraries are one of the few worthwhile things to come out of our taxes.

#16 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 4, 2013 @ 3:03 am

Knowledge is power; hence no surprise the apologists for elitists attack libraries, whose mission is free dissemination of knowledge to empower anyone who seeks, as worse than useless to their project of hegemony. Part of Andrew Carnegie’s repentance was his funding of libraries, no few number of which still stand throughout North America.

#17 Comment By John Page On March 6, 2013 @ 5:31 pm

I would be careful to not be an idealist but a realist about libraries. Depending on your community, many people, if not most, will use the library to get what they want, not what they need; and this is often junk. It is already-educated people who use libraries well.