Punxsutawney Phil may have predicted an early spring, but as I type these words, my mailbox is buried under three feet of snow and I haven’t left the house in five days. Still, I have nothing to complain about: my fridge is stocked. The heat works. And my last library visit yielded enough books to keep me entertained for a week.
I’m assuming that anyone who reads this blog is a fan of children’s books or at least books in general, so you need no convincing that public libraries are Great.
But allow me to indulge. I’ve lived in a lot of different places, and each time I was lucky enough to find a fully functioning library network. My current library is fast beyond belief (Moon Over Manifest arrived two weeks after I requested it, and I was fifteenth on the waiting list). Last year, when I spent six months in rural Colorado, the librarians were so diligent they would call my cell phone whenever a book I requested had come in. This always resulted in a lunchtime sprint down main street (all two blocks of it), during which I’d pass many of the people I knew. I wonder what they thought I was doing—probably not dashing after children’s books. And during high school, I lived in a tiny Massachusetts suburb whose library still used a paper card-catalog system. I rarely had to wait to check out popular books, because most people visited the larger library in the neighboring town. So that rickety old place became my library, and I was almost sorry when it relocated to a sparkling new building.
My only experience with a foreign library was quite different. Last July I went to Beijing for two weeks to visit some relatives. When I asked to see a library, my aunt took me to her office—she works in a national humanities research center, and their library had vast collections of current periodicals from around the world: The New York Times, Newsweek, Le Monde, Science, Nature, APA journals…on that weekday morning I was one of two people in the library, but they had no fiction, and it certainly wasn’t open to the public. Days later I visited the National Library of China, the country’s largest research library. Technically it’s open to anyone over 18. Since I didn’t have a Chinese passport, nor was I a Foreigner of Great Import, I only had access to the café and front lobby (they have comfy couches). So that is their current definition of a library—Institutions of Great Learning and Research. The idea of a public library system where anyone can borrow “normal” books (crime thrillers, paperback romance, graphic novels, children’s books) for fun has yet to take hold. That may change with time; for now though, my teenage cousin’s only way of reading books is to visit a bookstore. In other words, the average citizen can either go bankrupt, stop reading so many books, or tempt the wrath of booksellers by repeated loitering.
I point this out because there’s been a lot of recent hand-wringing over the “threat” that is China. Their economy has grown in leaps and bounds, and they’re churning out new college grads at precipitous rates (though job-hunting isn’t exactly a cinch). That Tiger Mother fiasco made a lot of people jumpy. And President Obama spent a considerable amount of time in his State of the Union address reassuring us that America is still the country of innovation and creativity…not to mention democracy.
That’s all very well, but it would have been a lot easier to just mention the public library system. The way I see it, public libraries do more for equality and openness than any other institution on “Main Street.” Books are just the start: of course they encourage imagination and introduce kids to new ideas. Libraries also allow you to experiment. You can try out new authors or genres and if you don’t like it, the only price is the weight of lugging back an unread book. Then there’s the economic bit. You don’t need money to have access to thousands of books and computers, and librarians who will help you with research or schoolwork. And don’t forget all the community programs like ESL classes, writing circles or art shows. This is the crux of the library system, that it helps to bridge the gap between rich and poor. My cousin might have the money to buy the books she wants, but she’s an exception in China (and even in Beijing). Out in the countryside, there are remote villages where the idea of a bookstore or research library is nothing but a dream.
So there you have it. Our library system might be plagued with funding crises and battles over censorship. But it exists. Innovation, creativity, intellect—the libraries have what Obama was looking for. And perhaps, in a more perfect world, they might even merit a mention in some future SOTU speech.
Image: Huron Public Library, Ohio courtesy of herzogbr.