America’s libraries bring community to communities
When I was on the board of our local public library in Delray Beach, Florida, we had to justify our campaign for a new library to potential donors who wondered whether libraries were relevant anymore. With the Web available to most people in their homes, was our old model of public libraries obsolete?
We would point out that easy Web access from home was not yet universal. All 15 Internet computers in our 50-year old library were nearly always in use and often had a queue of people waiting. At the same time, circulation of books, especially current fiction, continued to slowly climb. Plus, the library provided a safe, (relatively) quiet refuge staffed with helpful librarians.
Fortunately we won out, and due to the generosity of many private donors as well as the enlightened support of several governmental groups, Delray Beach now has a magnificent new public library. It boasts 55 public-access computers and a computer lab where free computer classes are held. The circulation of books and DVDs is up some 15%, while the number of library visits has more than doubled. The seats in front of all the new, flat-screen computers are nearly always occupied.
Happily, Delray Beach is not unusual but typical of thousands of American towns that enjoy wonderful public libraries. In neighboring Boca Raton, a new library was just finished, which you might well be amazed by. I certainly was.
I had similar “wow” experiences when I visited the libraries in Memphis, Tennessee, and Evanston, Illinois; in Wellesley and Newton, Massachusetts, and Greenwich, Connecticut; and in California’s wine country. At the St. Helena Public Library in the Napa Valley, Lori and I perused rows upon rows of handsome binders containing wine labels—important reference books for wine makers designing new labels.
And I’m not even counting the deservedly famous metropolitan libraries in Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle.
More book than burgers…
Our country has thousands of small, humble libraries, too. Many of these are included in our national total of 16,543 (which, as the American Library Association likes to remind us, is more than the 13,727 McDonald’s). Nearly two-thirds of American adults have library cards. As a nation, we check out an average of more than 7 items per year for every citizen, totaling some 2 billion items.
For these benefits, we pay an average of $31 in taxes per year.
…but a small piece of the pie
When I travel, I make it a point to drop in at libraries, often to the exasperation of my family. But I find libraries superior to visitor centers. When it comes to information on their town, you can’t find a better source than the local librarians. In the scores of libraries I’ve visited, from Alaska to Arizona, I’ve also found free Internet access in every one, open stacks for browsing, and inviting places to sit and read.
The one limitation I notice most often is that all these benefits might be for naught, because the library is closed.
Most municipalities struggle to fund the operating budgets for their libraries.When cutbacks occur, hours of operation are what suffer first—evenings go, then Sundays. Librarians and their friends have to struggle heroically every year for their slice of the public pie.
Cradles of learning and liberty
In the early days of our country, private libraries vied with the public model. We still have a few of the private ones, including The Library Company of Philadelphia and the Boston Athenaeum, but the tax-supported free model won out. The role of the library in helping new Americans—young people, old people, entrepreneurs and dreamers—continues to this day. Thousands of authors have testified how encountering their local public library was a pivotal event in their lives, and countless books have been written under the protective canopy of library ceilings.
Public libraries are where tens of thousands of Americans go weekly to engage in book discussions groups, to see screenings of classic films, and to hear authors and scholars lead discussions of literature and ideas. Many libraries host museum-quality traveling exhibitions.
One of the best things about American libraries are the librarians who work there. They are trained to help in an efficient, nonjudgmental way—both with difficult research questions and odd “reader’s advisory” questions, such as “What should my little brother read next?”
Moreover, librarians view themselves as professional protectors of our First Amendment. They throw themselves in the path of would-be book burners, and also in the path of government policies that impinge on the privacy of citizens to read what they want without anyone keeping track.
Since we can’t help but take all good things for granted, only by going outside of the United States can we begin to understand that we live in Library El Dorado. That is the subject of my next post, where we’ll take a quirky trip around the world, stopping at a few libraries.
Meantime, let me hear your thoughts on American libraries. What is your experience?
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For more on all that America’s libraries do, read the report of the American Public Library’s Public Programs Office.