All Hail the Public Library

Posted on Apr 16, 2014 | 0 comments

My parents revered aConcord_free_public_librarynd treasured books. In fact, my father hoarded them. They lined the walls of our house and you had to wend your way between stacks of them to get to his desk.

Nevertheless, they didn’t buy books lightly. Those books all over the house had been acquired over a lifetime. Book purchases in our household were for the most part reserved for birthdays and holidays.

We got most of our reading material at the public library.

And a glorious library it was. I grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, a town with a rich literary tradition (think Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott and Thoreau) and a very old library. There were marble busts of famous authors and an amazing catwalk around the central rotunda, which still looked, as I remember, an awful lot like it does in the historic photo above (you can see the catwalk). The children’s room was more inviting, but I loved it all. I loved the silence, the smell of old and new books, and the way time seemed to stop when I was in there, wandering the stacks. And I loved the echoing thunk of the stamping machine as the librarian inserted the cards of the books I was taking out. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.  Six, seven, eight times in a row.

I was a devoted library patron.My summer reading certificate from 1969

My parents took me there often when I was little, and later I would ride there on my bike. I knew exactly how many books I could fit in the handlebar basket. The librarians knew me and made suggestions when I ran out of things to read. I read books with “literary merit” (see the certificate, left), and books without literary merit. I read whatever I wanted, and the Concord Free Public Library provided nourishment for my hungry little brain.

[Aside: in 1993, when I published my first book, A City Year, they put it on the “Concord Authors” shelf. I’ve never had a prouder moment.]

I am lucky to have a similar library in the suburb where I’m raising my children. My children went to storytime there. Now teenagers, they still stock up on books at the library, and I rarely walk out without three or four books for myself. A small-town library, it recently joined a fantastic consortium, so now almost any book we could desire is available, free, within walking distance of our house.

Still, support for libraries is not secure. Our library had to go to the voters last year for money. Luckily, they got it. But in many communities, it’s a struggle. State funding for libraries has been declining for years. And that’s a shame.

The Internet changed everything for libraries. With online research so easy, with books so cheap and available online, and despite the decline of bookstores, especially indies, it can be tempting to think that libraries are not as important as they were. But they are.

Libraries are one of our only truly public institutions. And they are working very hard to deserve that title. My local library has concerts, classes, children’s programs, book festivals, author talks, art exhibits, and offers help with homework and taxes. You can go there and learn how to build a website or raise chickens, gain babysitting skills or get help with your resume. It offers free meeting space and computer terminals.

As for the books, they are still there – although some of them you can check out in electronic form without even leaving home. But my kids like to hold the books. And the librarians know us. My son knows to ask Mrs. Myers in the children’s room for recommendations, because she reads everything and she knows what he likes.

And it’s free and open to everyone. That’s an increasingly rare thing today, and worth fighting for.

As a writer and passionate reader of books, I get a little emotional thinking about the idea that a community can have such a bookish institution at its very center. Doesn’t that make you feel hopeful, too?




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