For the Love of Libraries



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!

30 thoughts on “For the Love of Libraries

  1. Marilyn, thanks for writing about libraries, especially in response to incredible questions about whether libraries are needed! Advocates like you keep these wonderful institutions going. I especially like your quote from Luis Herrera, whose insights are right on! Thanks the most though, for the warm image of your sister-in-law reading at CAC’s Elementary Library! That particular library has moved to a new building, but I like to think it has the same inviting feeling and is stocked with the very literature and information that takes us all over the world (and places beyond).

    Hugs from Ms. Ann, Elementary Librarian, CAC, Egypt


  2. I read this posting this morning and then headed out for a morning of family thrift store shopping where we are on vacation. I always look at the children’s books and, lo and behold, I found Miss Rumphius! Had never heard of it until this morning. Thanks for the tip. Well worth the 50 cents:-)


  3. Libraries are still very important in Alabama. At my local library they had to start a 2-hour limit on the computers because so many people are coming in to use them. And the library just did a renovation and has new carpet and bathrooms. With many people losing their jobs where I live. The libraries are about to become much more important!


    1. Our library was renovated a couple of years ago as well…beautiful space now and ours too has limits on how long you can spend on the computer. Do you live in an urban area? I wonder if urban libraries see more traffic than suburban. And totally agree – not only are libraries necessary, but they are becoming more important! One of my other readers from Pakistan just tweeted today that 85% of people in Pakistan have never been to a library. Not surprising with a low literacy rate, but makes me realize yet again what we have.


      1. Yes I live in a urban area. In fact I am at a library today writing this because my computer’s hard drive broke down. The good thing was everything important was backed up! Glad we have a library here!


  4. Oh Libraries! My favourite place! There is nothing better than walking into a library and knowing a whole world undescovered is there to explore, and I take out more books than I have time to read! The library has been my oasis where ever I have lived.

    My favourite author that drew me to books is Roald Dahl… Matilda, Boy and Going Solo still get a re-read every couple of years.


    1. I love this. I too have my favorites that I read either yearly or every 2 years. I like how you describe them as an oasis. I thought about that when I heard that immigrants are the biggest group of consumers in the NY public library. Perhaps they feel it’s an oasis in a place that can be harsh.


  5. Totally biased since I LOVE libraries – both as a patron and the best job I’ve ever had was working in the library at the seminary in St Louis – yes the role may change but the need is always there – I’m thrilled that we found a home within walking distance of our home here in Michigan.


    1. I had no idea you worked in a library – what a great environment to work. And there is something about finding the library quickly when moving to a new place. Familiarity, comfort, the known within the unknown.


  6. Oh how I loved and still love libraries. When I think back over what I miss now that my children are grown, is our outings to the library, our shelf at home labeled “lilbrary shelf” for the many books we would bring home, and just the comfort and enjoyment of spending time in the library. And I grieved over the changing of the seasons of snuggling on the sofa to read all together, to their desire to read alone. I still appreciate the times when I have had free moments to linger in the library and discover new books.


  7. Just went to the library today with my kids, and we were musing what it would take to max out all of our collective cards at the generous 150 item limit imposed by the Minuteman Library Network (our personal fav).

    Libraries are not just about books, as it was posed by Marilyn. They provide what sociologists call a third place for people to meet and greet one another which is neither as intimate as our homes or as public as our work places.

    I too am aghast that the Times would even raise such a question.


    1. I love the minuteman network as well! It allows for a much greater choice, selection of books. And yes to the third place. There’s also something of comfort to the library. You’re able to be with people even if you don’t know them, developing a community of sorts.


  8. A world without libraries? Unimaginable! As a child, teen, and now adult, I have spent countless hours in libraries in various countries. Regardless of the country, each library immediately becomes home since it breezes familiarity. A place without mental walls, a place inviting to learn, a place to stimulate the mind, and a place to satisfy once mental curiosities. A place so needed to culture young and old, a place that does not discriminate between rich and poor — all entering are welcome. A world without libraries? Truly unimaginable! Petra


  9. We got a library in our current city the week after we signed our lease. Since then we have checked out at least 6 kids books a week at least 48 weeks a year for the past 2 years. There is no way we could ever afford to buy all of these books and there would be no place to put them even if we could buy them. We don’t send our kids to private school or fancy classes in the summer, but my 6 and 4 year old know about the underground railroad, famous artists and how racecars are made because of the library. One of my favorite things as a mom is to introduce my children to Curious George, Laura Ingalls and the Boxcar children. It is not just good for their brain, it is passing on a hertitage from one book lover to another.


    1. Anne, I love your post. My daughter also received a stellar education through our never ceasing visits to the library since we could not afford buying all the books she read nor private school. Petra


      1. Agree with Petra – you bring up that all important reminder that we don’t have to buy books – we can borrow them. And that with a a good library you’ve been able to bring your children into worlds of imagination, history, and adventure.


  10. I’m one of those people in a country without publicly-funded libraries available to the common man. Growing up in the States, and actively participating in youth groups and advisory council boards for my local library, I was shocked when I moved to Pakistan and found out there were virtually no options for me. The few libraries I could easily access were full of old law books, records of the East India Company and medical journals. I turned to buying the novels I wanted to read. But more than having to buy the novels, the real heartbreaker was that I couldn’t find people who wanted to read – who enjoyed reading for a hobby – like I did. Nobody discussed my books with me, or had suggestions, or wanted to borrow them. Book reading went from being a community involvement activity to a stay-in-your-room activity. Yes, a hundred times yes, we need libraries.


      1. I’ve got a wonderful smart phone. I use that to read books, and I’m blessed to be a student at one of the world’s top universities, and it has a small (though steadily improving) fiction library.


    1. Zainab – you so get it! You realize that in some places libraries can only be accessed if you are at a top school. My question is this – as you’ve lived longer in Pakistan have you met more people who want to read or do you still struggle to find Anne of Green Gables type of kindred spirits?


      1. I do struggle. A majority of my colleagues that read (a minority overall) stick to the occasional chick-lit novel, some Cecilia Ahern, or Sydney Sheldon. Very few are interested in “thick, scary books”. I do find, however, that when I talk to them about books I like, they start to warm to the idea. That always makes me hopeful that they’ll become bibliophiles one day.


    2. Zainab, so happy to meet you here on Marilyn’s blog. When my husband and I lived in a small town in Upper Sindh in the 60s, he opened a small reading room/library, and it was quite popular. When one of my granddaughters spent a year in Uganda, she begged copies of one of the Narnia books (CSLewis) from family and friends so she could start a book club. Perhaps you could find a few friends who would be interested in joining a book club. It might get them interested in different books, and the discussion is always fascinating.


  11. How timely. On the same day that you posted this, I “made a trip” (virtually) to my library and read on the front webpage the following words: “Projected year-end numbers for the past 12 months include more than 5.9 million visits to libraries, about 18 million items checked out.” I live in Minneapolis, where many people do not have the internet because of finance, and the libraries are social hubs. They are always busy, and – yes! – people are STILL checking out books!


    1. Love this perspective from you as an educator. And 5.9 visits….wow! One article read said they have increased in popularity since the closing of large chain book stores like Borders – give me a library over Borders any day!


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