Thursday, September 20, 2018

In the Matter of Libraries

I am writing this blog post at my local public library, Little Falls Library, part of the large suburban Montgomery County, Maryland system (21 branches, not counting the one at the prison). It is 5 minutes from my home, and I come here almost daily. It has practically become my office, but better, as distractions such as phone calls are not allowed.  I especially enjoy the “Quiet Room” - where talking is prohibited, and people sit reading or writing. It is in this room where I have just finished an article in the September 9 New York Times, entitled “Why Libraries Still Matter.”

I have always loved libraries. If you love books, why wouldn’t you?  They are like a free candy store for those addicted to sweets. I was first turned on to literature by the librarian at my middle school. “Why don’t you try this Geoff,” the librarian Mrs. Rose Baldwin said as she handed me “Johnny Tremain “ by Esther Forbes.  After I devoured this historical novel set during the American Revolution, then it was on to “Red Badge of Courage” by Stephen Crane, a classic Civil War story.  I was hooked. Mrs. Baldwin became my personal book chooser through eighth grade.

The Times article by Eric Klinenberg, a Professor of Sociology at New York University, begins by citing a 2016 Pew Survey statistic that about half of all Americans 16 years and over used a public library in the recent year and that two thirds surveyed said closing their local branch would have a “major impact on their community.” Despite the strong endorsement of the value of libraries seen in this poll, Klinenberg points out there are far too many instances where libraries are being shuttered or their budgets cut.

He blames this disconnect on a lack of understanding by some public officials of what libraries have become, beyond their traditional role as loaners of free books and other media. Libraries are an example of what Klinenberg calls the “social infrastructure” that influences how people interact with each other. He describes how libraries provide a valuable place for social interaction for older people, children and those who cannot afford to patronize other public/community  venues, such as Starbucks. Public libraries tend to be welcoming places, and their mission includes serving their community through active programming.  For instance my small local library offers events that include Storytelling in Spanish, Tai Chi classes and numerous book discussion groups.  These activities bring people of diverse backgrounds together and away from the temptation of their small screens. 

It might be useful to characterize the Little Falls Library and others like it as “community libraries” to distinguish them from the large research libraries such as the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress, although in the cases of such major urban libraries their branches fulfill a community role. I am among the thousands who have found reading, researching or writing in the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library or the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress just plain inspiring. These institutions are cathedrals, whereas my local library is more like a country church- each beloved for different reasons. 

At the end of “Why Libraries Still Matter” Professor Klinenberg cites an illustrative story. This past summer Forbes magazine published an article by an economist who suggested public libraries no longer served a purpose and should not receive public tax support. The author suggested instead that Amazon’s retail outlets take their place, claiming that Americans favor free market options. The negative outcry from the public was so overwhelming that Forbes was forced to remove the article from its website. 

I love seeing a child at my library engrossed in a book or an older adult leaving the building with a pile of novels that will be likely read within a matter of days. There are not many better examples of good use of public tax revenue than a public library. So the next time you hear of a measure threatening to close or curtail your local library, don’t stay silent. Contact your community decision-makers with your protest. Cite what a library means or has meant to you, and be especially mindful of what libraries may mean to your neighbors and their importance in the fabric of your greater community. 

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