It was my sister-in-law who taught me to love libraries. I can see her to this day, curled on the cushions in the children’s section of the Cairo American College Library. She had a toddler on her lap and a pre-schooler beside her and she was reading Miss Rumphius. I was glued to the scene. I wanted to be her. I wanted to sit curled up on those cushions with my kids reading library books forever. I don’t know why it took me so long to love libraries, but once I learned I never looked back.
Not surprisingly Miss Rumphius became one of my favorite children’s books. Years later, one of my close friends became the librarian of that section of the library. She found her niche among Miss Rumphius, Stargirl and many more excellent books for younger audiences.
Periodically I would receive notes from one of my kids “going to the library after school” – it wasn’t a place of punishment, it was a place and space of comfort.
In moving from Cairo this year, my daughter Annie had ‘Get a library card’ at the top of her to-do list. It was crossed off quickly.
So when Room for Debate in the New York Times asked the question “Do we still need libraries?” Scissors went through my heart.
Who would even ask that stupid question?
Of course we need libraries. Libraries are necessary to a functional community. Libraries are reading places, meeting places, resting places, learning places, writing places, necessary spaces!
If you want to question the importance of libraries just talk to people who have lived for long periods of time in countries without a public library system. They’ll tell you what it’s like to long for that space, those shelves of books, that quiet. They’ll tell you how they begin their own forms of libraries through borrowing the books of friends, through developing small loaning libraries in a tiny room in a church, they’ll tell you how they bought the Kindle, NOT because they like electronic media, but because they love books and had a limited luggage allowance that had to include baby paraphernalia and other essentials, leaving some of the essential books behind.
I was told once that the biggest consumers of the New York Public Library system are immigrants. I believe it. For when you’ve lived without, you don’t take for granted a system like libraries.
So why is it even a question?
Because libraries, though free to us, are not free. They take upkeep, good staff, an incoming supply of books. They may be public, but they are not free. And judging from the various perspectives in the Room for Debate article, libraries have had to reconsider their function. They have had to address the need and importance of computer and internet access, speak into the digital world of e-books. In many ways they have had to be reinvented.
Luis Herrera, city librarian of San Francisco says this: “Libraries are more relevant than ever. They are a place for personal growth and reinvention, a place for help in navigating the information age, a gathering place for civic and cultural engagement and a trusted place for preserving culture. While the technology for accessing library materials has changed and will continue to change, our mission – to inform, to share and to gather – will not.”
It is Matthew Battle, author of Library: An Unquiet History, who worded it best in Room for Debate:
“In their long history, libraries have been models for the world and models of the world; they’ve offered stimulation and contemplation, opportunities for togetherness as well as a kind of civic solitude. They’ve acted as gathering points for lively minds and as sites of seclusion and solace. For making knowledge and sharing change, we still need such places — and some of those, surely, we will continue to call ‘the library.'”
So what do you think? What is your experience in and with libraries? And do we still need them? Discuss!
- NY Times: Libraries See Opening as Bookstores Close (infodocket.com)
- Books That Inform (communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com)