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On Libraries

The recently renovated East Lake Public Library in Birmingham, Alabama

I love this little essay by the SF writer John Scalzi 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 — 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.) 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), 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.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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