In Defense of Libraries

By | May 11, 2011

From time to time I feel the need to add my two cents about stuff that is only peripherally related to the core mission of this site. Today is one of those times.

Last week our county held an election. On the ballot were candidates for the school board, a recall of our village leadership (what, again?), and a library millage. I could care less about the rest, but the millage was important to me. The library leaders were not overreaching in their request. The money would simply maintain current hours and resources. Heck, I would have asked for more. Our library system has already made deep cuts in the past several years, and as it stands, it’s only open eight hours a day now, and closed on Fridays and Sundays.

I believe in libraries. Our library system is one of the best things this county has going for it. From my computer I can browse collections from around the state and have books delivered just a few doors down from my house. An report from a group that tracks happiness nationally found our county to be one of the saddest in the country, so things like libraries can’t be taken for granted. They are essential.

That said, I was discussing the library and the millage with a friend at one of the diners in town and was shocked to hear him say, “I voted for the millage, but libraries are really unnecessary. In ten years, we won’t need them at all.” This raised my hackles, and if I didn’t know the person to be a functioning illiterate, I would have really taken offense. But it did get under my craw, and in response I mount this defense of libraries.

The argument against libraries was never fully articulated by my friend (and it is perhaps unfair for me to respond so fully to such a weak argument), but based on previous conversations, I know where he’s coming from. Essentially, he’s a tech-junkie (an Apple freak to the core). This means he totes around his iPhone, iPad, and Mac Airbook everywhere he goes. Though he boasts having six books downloaded to his iPad, he once told me he doesn’t like to read and instead listens to podcasts for his personal pursuit of lifelong learning. This belief in the salvific power of technology is central to his argument for the end of libraries, and it has two points—one practical and one that speaks to a larger cultural shift:

  1. The progress of technology means that we don’t need physical places for physical books. The world exists in our pocket now.
  2. Books themselves, digitally or otherwise, are simply inferior to a list of bullet points or a twenty-minute podcast.

Let me begin by responding to the physicality of books and libraries.

Books and children, raising children without screens

When I think of libraries, I automatically think of kids. Kids love libraries. There are books and DVDs, reading nooks, and story-time stages. As they get older, and their interests mature, kids move from picture books, to juvenile and YA fiction, and eventually over to the “adult” shelves. Libraries also run programs, everything from magic shows to summer reading contests. Skilled librarians are on hand to offer expert advice to parents on different books for their dinosaur lover or young aspiring chefs.

In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv talks a lot about how kids learn. Learning for children is hands-on. They learn through manipulating and feeling with their hands. Books offer this kind of experience. Recently I read a report on the growing number of children’s picture books coming to e-readers, and it grieved me. What about Pat the Bunny? What about The Very Hungry Caterpillar? For years books like these have engaged kids on a physical level as they are introduced to a very cerebral activity. In fact, all books do that, from the great illustrated books by Mo Willems to my copy of Anna Karenina. I don’t say this lightly. I am not, like the Amazon commercial suggests, a lover of folding down the corners of pages to mark my place in a book. (In fact, I find that an appalling idea.) Rather, I am saying that screens are taking over and removing a generation from having real experiences. So much so, that now even the vicarious act of reading has become more vicarious.

Closer to home, I want my daughter to have the full gamut of childhood experience. I want her to be in her twenties and have a smell or sound remind her of her childhood. I am not saying I want her to fall in love with the smell of books, but I want her to fall in love with the smell of something. (Have you ever noticed that our computers and iPods never smell like anything?)

Books, a worthwhile investment of time

The second part of my friend’s feelings on libraries is that they are depositories for books, which he considers an antiquated medium for sharing information. Antiquated because, I believe he would argue, technology allows us easier ways to get the same information (listening, watching, etc.). I think the argument for book-length writing has been made quite strongly by folks like Neil Postman, and I won’t try to replicate their efforts here. I will just say this, the necessary effort and investment that goes into writing and then reading a prolonged treatise on any subject bears significantly more fruit than the same information distilled down to a 700-word essay, podcast, or animated YouTube short.

I like listening to people who are experts in what they do. One thing I find they often have in common is a sense of context. Great architects understand the architecture that came before them. Great preachers have read the sermons of John Chrysostom, Martin Luther, and John Donne. Presidents seem to often have a historians appreciation for the administrations that have come before them. This kind of expertise only comes from a life of reading, and reading deeply. And it is through learning to love reading books that children develop the kind of deep thinking that will potentially lead to lives of real greatness.

Libraries as our last non-commercial community space

All over town we have businesses trying to become the “third place.” Bookstores, health clubs, and any number of coffee shops are all competing for our attention. They want us to make their place our third place. One thing they have in common? They all want our money. The library is one of the last non-commercial public spaces we have as communities. Where else are you going to meet your neighbors? There’s church, but that’s one of the most “segregated hours” in the week. The post office typically doesn’t have chairs. The court house couldn’t be less hospitable. And hanging out at the urgent care is just … weird. The library is to the only institution to offer you a chance to engage with your neighbors in a meaningful way.

Now, I am not an idiot. I realize people aren’t meeting new people every day at the library and engaging in Socratic dialog. I myself don’t make a lot of friends at the library, but by taking advantage of their kids programs, visiting regularly to borrow books and movies, and sometimes just finding a desk to work on to get away from the home office, I’ve found the library to be a great community center with the potential for connecting with others.

 

Okay, I’ve gone on too long. I would love to spend some real time on this, add more from outside sources, and really craft a solid argument, but I think you get where I am going. It’s time to get off my horse. (And, by the way, our library millage passed!)

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