Monday, April 17, 2006

In praise of public libraries

I’m an editor/author/former church librarian/all-around book geek, so one of the most gratifying things for me as a parent is when my four-year-old son says, “Let’s go to the library. We can check out lots of books.” We typically go to the library at least once a week, and we always come home with stacks of stuff. Right now Josiah is in a Curious George phase, and his bedtime routine last night included ten Curious George books.

Our local public library has been ranked one of the top ten public libraries in the nation for its size. A few years ago, we decided to move just two blocks from our old house not only because we wanted to stay in the local community, but also because we wanted to keep the same home library.

Why do I love our library? Let me count the ways. Online catalog access, which lets us check due dates, reserve books and renew items. Interlibrary loan, through which we can get nearly any book or DVD available in the state of Illinois at no cost. A fantastic children’s department that includes a train table and all sorts of educational toys. Computers where kids can play educational games, with adjacent computers for parents so I can check the status of eBay auctions while Josiah is playing Bob the Builder. A large collection of DVDs, CDs, periodicals and comic books/graphic novels. We can even check out LeapPad books and cartridges.

Libraries are kind of a mind-boggling concept, if you think about it – I can’t think of any other industry or category of items that has library equivalents. It’s not like you can go somewhere and borrow dress shirts or khakis, or check out a set of dishes or silverware for a few weeks. Just about everything else in our economy is based on commodity exchange, the buying and selling of goods and products. Libraries stand alone in sharing resources with a community. A library’s books and resources are the communally owned property of the community around it. That’s a countercultural concept in our privatistic consumer culture that says that all of us need to buy everything individually for ourselves.

The library helps hold my consumerism in check. Whereas my default setting was to buy every book that ever caught my fancy, in recent years I’ve learned that I do not need to personally own everything I want to read. Nor do I necessarily need to have everything right away. Our library essentially works like Netflix for free; a book or DVD might arrive months after I reserve it, and that’s okay. We haven’t rented a movie in years.

In addition, the library is one of the few civic meeting spaces where the local community gathers and interacts. Besides hosting numerous reading groups, workshops, seminars and toddler story times, the library is also a meeting place for community issues. Our suburb, like many in the area, has had increasing numbers of housing teardowns in recent years, and the library hosted forums where people could hear the pros and cons of teardowns and their impact on our community. The library is one of the few remaining noncommercial public square “third places” where people can connect and build social capital.

I am a beneficiary of a suburban community that has had a history of strong support for the local library. I overheard someone saying that a resident donated $25,000 to jumpstart the library’s DVD holdings. In a recent local election, an item on the ballot would have changed how the village makes its budgetary decisions, and one of the main reasons it was voted down was that it might have significantly reduced funding for the library. We love our library. It’s a matter of civic pride.

But I know that not every community has a library like ours. Libraries have varying amounts of resources available to them, depending on local population and funding and whatnot. Many municipalities have needed to cut library budgets to provide for schools and other public priorities. As a result, bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble have in many ways become library alternatives, often intentionally replicating and replacing some of the civic functions that libraries used to provide.

As a book publishing professional, I’m happy to have people encounter books anywhere, whether in the commercial environment of a bookstore or in the public space of a library. Indeed, our public library is adjacent to a local bookshop, and they even share the same parking lot. Even as I encourage people to support their local bookstore, I also encourage them to support their local library. If you haven’t stopped by your library for a while, drop in and browse. Pick up a book by an author you’ve never heard of before, or a genre that you rarely read. Look at the community notices on the bulletin boards. And thank a librarian on your way out. Not only do they help individuals think and grow, they provide civic health to the whole community.


Kristi said...

Another praise for public libraries: When you have questions, the nice ladies at the reference desk have the answers. I love those ladies!

Tonya said...

I have fond memories of biweekly visits to the huge white Southdale library as a family growing up (is it nature or nurture that I love to READ??!) and I love our brand new Brookdale library...but the DVD department is sadly lacking.

I guess I can be glad it means I can continue to support our little mom & pop video place that we can all walk to after supper!

Jenell Williams Paris said...

I was going to write you a longer message about InterVarsity, but can't find your e-mail. Instead, I'll offer you this link:

Al Hsu said...

Okay, Jenell, you win - the Bush Fish is worse than the Jabez Fish. (This is following up some posts on Jenell's blog about cheesy Christian kitsch.)