You may have seen the article, “In Praise of Libraries,” published in the Rotarian Magazine, making the internet rounds this week. Naturally I agree with much of what author Joe Queenan has to say about the importance and role of libraries. I thought I’d take a look at how my own public library holds up to his praise:
1. “The public library is the only civic institution in my community that is uncompromisingly successful. . . . Nobody in my town ever stands up and says he dislikes the public library. Nobody in your town does, either.” In our town I’d have to say this isn’t true. I’ve had people tell me they don’t like using the library, and there are thousands of people who are quietly saying it by never getting a card.
2. “The public library is an indispensable institution that somehow manages to get taken completely for granted.” Yes, I’d venture that if we closed tomorrow, the public would be up in arms that there was no library, even those who have never use it.
3. “The public library serves many functions in a community. It is an adjunct to the public schools, a place where kids can do their homework. It is a day care center of sorts, where small children gather for story hour. It is a safe haven where senior citizens can pass the time in the company of others, where the unemployed can look for work. It is a place where the lonely can be less lonely, the bored less bored, the dejected less dejected, and the ignorant more enlightened. It is the one place in a small town where teenagers cannot possibly get into serious trouble.” I’d agree with the majority of this paragraph. Save the last sentence.
4. “The public library has features that make it different from any other institution. It is public, in the true democratic sense of the word, and it is free. . . . The library’s philosophy is simple: Come one, come all.” Yes. As you’ve read here at Nocturnal Librarian this is one of the things that keeps me going, as a librarian. Unfortunately, the fact that it’s open to all is one reason not everyone likes coming to the library. And it’s also one reason I contend that teenagers — or anyone — could conceivably find trouble if they wanted to in many public libraries around the country, including my own.
5. “The wide array of things that libraries offer means that they reach all levels of society. They make society better than it would be if left to its own devices. Libraries are a subtle, almost cunning, bulwark against the racial and socioeconomic segregation that society naturally gravitates toward, even when it does not do so out of malice. People congregate in libraries in a way that they do not congregate elsewhere. Because they are not bound by narrow class or economic or cultural strictures, libraries can cater to everyone.” I agree that we cater to everyone, and should do so. I agree in theory that we make society better by serving as an antidote to cultural, economic, social, and racial segregation. In practice, I think the same people who avoid each other’s company, or more likely, simply do not even truly realize each other’s presence, outside the library do so inside it as well.
6. “Libraries are both aspirational and inspirational.” Yes. Ideally, we are. When we try to live up to our mission, “to connect individuals with resources in order to enhance lives and build community,” anything can happen, anything is possible. This is the other thing that makes me happy to go to work every day.
7. “Public libraries are not judgmental in the way that other institutions are. They offer good books, but they also offer bad books. Lots and lots and lots of bad books. If you want wheat, they will lend you wheat. If you want chaff, they’ve got plenty in stock. Inside the library, it’s a free-for-all, culturally speaking.” Yes. You can find what you want to read, what you didn’t know you wanted to read, what you will be better for having read, and everything in between (and all combinations thereof).
8. “But the most valuable thing that libraries offer us is a path through the looking glass, a sense of wonder. American life is all about planning and regimentation and scheduling and efficiency. The public library is where serendipity reigns. It is the place where you throw out all the rules and wing it. I personally never go into the library and come out with what I went in for. . . .When I wander into the library, I might bring home anything.” Amen. Which is why I always recommend people browse our shelves rather than just looking at the online catalog and then finding specific books. But with roughly half our adult books in storage, that serendipity is not maximized at the moment.
9. Queenan quotes his hometown librarian, Maureen Petry: “We are a community center, yes, so we offer help with doing your taxes and applying for jobs and improving your English. But we can’t just be that. We can’t just be a service organization. We can’t lose sight of our identity as a cultural center.” Preach it, sister. As I’ve written here at Nocturnal Librarian many times before, we can’t lose sight of what makes libraries libraries even as we try to meet all those other needs Petry mentions. We are a freely accessible place to be thoughtful and quiet and studious, to read, to learn, to discover. Books are at the heart of what we do. Championing reading, lifelong learning, and the value of culture is what makes us more than a community center.
10. And he adds, “Petry says you cannot underestimate the role of the library as a community adhesive. She believes that people become more appreciative of libraries as they mature.” I’d say that the first statement is one we should aspire to but I’m not sure my library is accomplishing; we’re not exactly an adhesive if a majority of our community are not library users. And her second statement is possibly true, and is one reason we serve so many older citizens. But I know many younger patrons, young families, young adults and teens, but also kids, for whom my library is a haven. They count on us for a physical place to be, for internet connectivity, for reading material, for human contact. And I believe they appreciate us.
11. Again from Petry, “It makes you feel that you are part of a community . . . . In the library, you get to feel that you are part of something bigger than yourself. It’s life.” Yes. I certainly feel that way, and I think both our staff and patrons do too.
12. “The library is thus both the ultimate backstage pass and the rabbit hole we can follow Alice down. The library is not just the House of Knowledge. It is the House of Dreams.” Queenan is specifically referring to the fact that kids aren’t told what to read at the library. Which should be the case. But I think the point applies to everyone. At its best the library opens the door to knowledge and brings dreams within reach. But again I return to point 1 — people have to want to come use the library first.
We have the potential to be all of the things Queenan praises about libraries. We’re already some of those things, at least to the subset of citizens who come through our doors (or our virtual doors, but they have to come in and get a card first). We can be all of this, and we’re working towards that.