Thursday, January 5, 2012
The Heart of the Community. The Library.
As a child, my mother brought me to the library once or twice a week. We did not have a large free library in our "hamlet" and were required to pay for membership at the larger town libraries, which were free to residents of areas outlying my own. (I never quite understood the geographical and legal limitations of the hamlet, but I don't think that matters. All I know is that our taxes did not go toward library services and we paid at the library for our cards.) Mom taught me that a library was something worth paying for, directly if necessary. We were lucky that we could afford the fee and that we didn't have to travel too far get there. The library was a destination. It was a building filled with knowledge and a place where my imagination could run wild. I could borrow books, and posters, and records and think of them as my own for a short while because I was part of a special community of library patrons.
The right to be part of a "special" community that provides a physical space where one can have a figurative key to a bigger world heightens empathy. The library allowed me to see and explore commonalities among diverse peoples all over the world, so I could better understand my own place and those of others. I believe everyone should have free access to such a place.
I have a memory of sitting in my elementary school library. Mom was meeting with my teacher and I was lovingly parked in front of a display of Dr. Seuss books. The round carousel in the middle of the room held "Green Eggs and Ham," "The Cat in the Hat," "One Fish Two Fish..." Mom was away long enough for me to read every single book on exhibit. I had such a feeling of accomplishment. I felt warm and cozy inside and always identified that space as a piece of me; it was a place from which I took a memory that was partly responsible for making me an enthusiastic reader.
Reading library books gave me a safe way to explore who I am. It gave me confidence to define my personal identity and acknowledge my uniqueness.
In college, I spent a lot of time at the library. The building was old. The spaces with my favorite collections were dark. The seating was not comfortable. It didn't matter to me at the time. The library was an old friend - a relative of my home town library. I went there not only for the books that I needed, but also for its welcoming arms that allowed me to feel the pulse of my education and to feel "home." (Some people seek familiar food when in a foreign place. I seek the familiarity of a library.) Computers at the library became a new key to my community. The computers allowed me easier access to the knowledge and creativity embodied in my favorite building on campus.
The realization that I could develop my brain as others had done in that building helped me better understand what education could do for me.
Libraries are changing. They began their biggest change in 100 years during my time in college. Computers brought into libraries were yet to reach very far out when I was an undergraduate student. Few people had them in their homes. There was little information available on them. Things are so different today, two decades later, that many people feel we don't need libraries anymore. They believe that so much information is available through computers in our homes and in our pockets that libraries are obsolete. I am a big Internet user. I spend much of my day getting my information from remote machines and connecting to other people and worlds through them but I still actively use the library. Libraries have never just been about the books or even the information they provide.
Libraries give knowledge some tangible structure, providing a contained place and some authority to learn to evaluate information. Libraries attach local support and familiarity to large bodies of human ideas that are often different from our own.
The library in the Town in which I settled as an adult has provided me with reading material and a comforting place to do my writing and research. As a young mother, it was a haven where I could meet with other young mothers finding their way. It allowed me to hand my daughter a key to knowledge and assisted me with helping to instill a love of learning and curiosity. My library has remote access to reading materials and databases. It provides a place for local artists to display works, for community groups to meet, for people to discuss big ideas in a neutral space. My town has even been working for the past few years to build an outdoor gathering area near our library. There is a gazebo with plans to have outdoor concerts. They will even be putting in a skate pond. My fellow townspeople seem to feel as I do - that the library is our local heart that can serve as a grounding point for our shared activities, the growth of ideas, and the building of a better future.
A library gives us a heightened sense of place that embodies civic pride. It allows us to discover, articulate and even show off who we are and who we want to be.
A library building and the human support within is a monument to civilization. It shows us all bound together with our dreams and our potential represented in one building. That is where libraries stand in my opinion. That is where they will always stand - reminding us from where we came while pointing us toward where we are going. Libraries will change, but they always have the potential to be the heart of every small community and a thread from one community to the next.