I am an inquisitive person by nature. I really enjoy learning new things and tracking down information. In the old days that meant going to the World Book or Encyclopedia Britannica. If it were really involved, that meant going to the library.
Libraries are magical places. Librarians are the wizards that run them. You can find EVERYTHING in a library. You just need to learn the system. Back in my younger days, that meant the Dewey Decimal System.
If you couldn’t find what you wanted on the shelves, you could look the book up in the card catalogue. This was a beautiful piece of furniture that contained 3X5 cards in drawers that slid in an out smoothly and quietly. Author, Title, call number, perhaps a brief description of the contents. A candy store of contents! And that all important call number. The GPS for book location.
Books, Glorious Books!
My first library was my grandparent’s home. Built-in shelves filled with glorious volumes arranged by size. My aunt’s house also was filled with books, but hers were in glass-faced lawyer’s bookcases, and were leather-bound “small books”. Classics printed on onionskin paper with gold fore-edging.
My second library was the Public Library in the town I grew up in. The children’s section was in the basement and the adult section was up a grand staircase. Upstairs had the imposing central desk, leather chairs positioned in ways to discourage conversation. Downstairs was well-lit, with tables and chairs that encouraged sharing what I was reading with other readers. Upstairs was quiet and solemn. Downstairs was energetic and playful.
School libraries followed, and as my reading levels increased, so did the expanse of books. I was a regular at the Public Library on weekends, taking out the maximum number of books allowed. School libraries also had limits, but between them both, I made my way through history, biography, psychology, religion, general knowledge, technology, social sciences, and literature. I dipped into science and language, too, but didn’t spend a lot of time there.
Andrew Carnegie and Libraries in America
Back in the day, libraries were places that required you pay a subscription fee. That meant that many people who didn’t have the money, didn’t have access to books. Andrew Carnegie grew up poor, but understood the advantages that learning gave in terms of improving one’s lot. His acquisition of wealth came from hard work, but also from reading books.
At one time, Andrew Carnegie was the richest man in the world. Where Rockefeller gave dimes to folks on the streets and built a huge building in New York City, Andrew Carnegie left a greater legacy in giving Americans access to unlimited possibilities through endowing his library grants.
Communities could apply for $10,000 grant, which required the town or city demonstrate the need for a public library, provide the building site, pay staff and maintain the library, draw from public funds to run the library—not use only private donations, annually provide ten percent of the cost of the library’s construction to support its operation, and, provide free service to all.
That $10K paid for the building. The community was responsible for stocking it. If you build it, they will come. In the U.S. alone, 1,689 libraries were built between 1883 and 1929. And people did come to free libraries.
Libraries are radical places. Ideas and information are there for the taking. And librarians are radical change makers. They are trained to organize, research, preserve, make sense of vast amounts of knowledge and enlighten others.
Libraries today are hubs of activity ranging from providing WiFi access to serving specific needs of the communities where they are located to assisting in public policy research. Looking for a job? A librarian will help you log on the computer, find resources so you can learn about putting together your resume, and direct you to job boards where local employers are hiring. Looking to write a policy paper on butterfly migration? A librarian can take you to the stacks and find books on environmental issues impacting butterflies to how to create a garden that butterflies will stop in on their way north or south.
Censorship vs. Citizenship
Recently, libraries and librarians have become the focus of groups that have determined that some of the books contained within their walls are so inflammatory and are of such potential to cause serious damage, that they need to be removed or banned. Sadly, this is not the first time that ideas have been challenged and attempts made to limit access; happily, such attempts have never been successful!
With that said, those of us who value knowledge and free access to it have a duty to preserve the sources of that knowledge and protect those whose jobs it is to collect and keep it all organized. This is not as challenging as it might seem. It only requires that you stop by your public library and thank your librarian.
If you are so inclined, you can also get a library card, and take books out (and please, return them!). You will, like generations before you, be participating in an act of citizenship that is at the core of our democracy. Andrew Carnegie understood this.
My public library is a hive of activity, ranging from providing a place for students after school to complete their assignments, to offering lectures by locals who have interesting things to share. As with everything these past two years, COVID has challenged libraries to pivot and adapt in order to continue to provide services.
It remains both a sanctuary and escape portal, offering safe space to learn and explore new ideas as well as a predictable repository of knowledge that can distract me from the on-going slog of the pandemic. What other public service offers such an array?
What I learned this week included just how vital and important my public library is to me and my community. May I encourage you to check out your library? See what is happening, virtually or in person. I think you will be surprised!