This week I intended to write of books and the places that sell them, but instead, we need to think about books and the places that loan them. Our libraries are imperiled, which means we are imperiled as well.
About the only time libraries seem to make the front pages are when they undergo personnel problems or some kerfluffle is raised about whether homeless people are browsing or bunking there. Heed is rarely paid when a library succeeds in its daily mission to provide the citizenry access to knowledge and thus to power.
Before continuing, I should disclose that I am partial to libraries. When I was a kid, my home away from home was the Parke Memorial branch of the Birmingham Public Library on 11th Avenue South, not far from my father’s office. When he rode in to work a half day on Saturdays, I would invariably take the 43 Edgemont with him to Southside; he’d head up to Terrace Court and I to the mysterious stacks at the library.
The card catalog still had cards in it back then, and the shelves bulged with what I assumed to be the loot of the world. There were novels from Russia, mythologies from Greece, anthologies from Italy, rotogravure from Japan. The magazine rack held weekly copies of Time, Life, Look and The Saturday Evening Post, but I was drawn to exotica such as Paris-Match and Der Spiegel. (Of course, I was just looking at pictures, but they gave me an inkling, in that prehistoric pre-internet age, of just how big the world might be.)
At Parke Memorial I made the acquaintance of famous lifelong friends by the name of Twain, Conan Doyle and Fitzgerald, but I happened upon writers unsung so much anymore, such as Saki and S. J. Perelman and Colette, who spun yarns with a verve I could only wish to emulate. There was also a shelf loaded with something called Science Fiction, featuring the classic authors Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, but also equally masterful scribes such as Alfred Bester and Theodore Sturgeon. Poets, too, made the cut in the stacks of books I would take home weekly; I started with the meters of Kipling and Longfellow, but once Walt Whitman hove into view, the frontier was open.
(Just now another name returned to me from that long-ago time, that of adventurer-journalist Richard Halliburton. I remember I discovered his Royal Road to Romance, a frenetic memoir of traveling around the world, about the same week I happened upon Bill Stern’s sports story collections. Both of those authors have been engulfed by the sands of time, but that summer I was sure their works would live forever.)
I haven’t much in the bank, but I carry incalculable riches around with me wherever I go, thanks to the library. All those tales in all those tomes helped construct for me a worldview, a perspective from which I could make critical judgments about life and living based on the experiences of those who went before me. I own a lot of books now, but those that made the biggest difference in my life were the ones I borrowed, not the ones I bought.
The Birmingham Public Library is just one of many across the country with financial woes stemming from municipal budget cuts. Though the community library was not originally free for all—Ben Franklin’s 1742 Philadelphia library, first in the States, was available only to those who bought stock in the undertaking—the Boston Public Library, opened in 1854 and supported by taxes, set a template ultimately refined at the end of the 19 th Century by American Library Association president Melvil Dewey, he of the famous decimal system.
Our libraries are free, but they are not without cost, and when the City Council checked out 600 grand from the library budget and never brought it back, it severely impaired the system. After all, to keep pace with demand, our libraries must acquire e-books, DVDs and audio, as well as expensive current publications. That’s why the BPL has started requesting donations from its patrons, and if you use the library, I urge you to consider kicking in a few bucks to help out, either online or at the checkout.
Even if you don’t patronize the library, you should do the same. Skeptics viewing the exponential increase of internet usage for information mining might well wonder why we even need libraries anymore. Part of the answer is the haphazard nature of the ‘net itself; Denise Troll, writing for the Digital Library Federation, singled out collegians who preferred internet searches to library searches, observing that, “Many undergraduate students may be searching only 0.03% of the Web to complete their assignments, ignoring entirely the books, journals, databases, full-text digital resources and other scholarly materials provided by the library.”
Another aspect of the answer is less academic. Libraries, along with schools, sports and houses of worship, hold a community together, By providing a space where all citizens, regardless of race, creed or computer savvy, can utilize a common trove of knowledge, art and history, a library and its librarians connect the populace to the world around them and to each other...for free.
I’m no philanthropist, but I bet if I quit sucking down the Heritage Dr. Peppers, I’d save ten bucks a month I could toss to the BPL. Examine your own monthly thrift abuse and you’ll likely find a similar way to reapportion your wealth. Every dollar helps, for it’s a cinch the City Council won’t be adding $600,000 to the library budget any year soon.
Of all the institutions threatened by economic upheavals of the present day, we can least afford to lose our libraries, and, of all people, Lady Bird Johnson may have summarized why best:
“Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.”
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.