When you are growing up there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is a great equaliser. – Keith Richards
There is no doubt that Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has said and sung some profound things during his public life (and not a few unintelligible ones), but for me the quote above may be his best. Libraries are truly the great equalizer, being the one place that ignores race, creed, income level, and all of the other things that tend to divide us. With all the recent talk about the viability of public libraries in the digital age, I find myself looking back at my own experience with public libraries and forward to the future I believe they are still a key part of.
I grew up in the public library, and in bookstores as well. But where bookstores were always, at their core, stores, the library was a temple of reading. The heat we’re now experiencing in Texas reminds me that my public library was always cold in the summer, a welcome relief from the oppressive heat of a July day. It was warm in the cold days of winter, too, but it is summer that sticks most in my mind, maybe because with school out I was there so often.
Back then the library cards were made of a heavy card stock rather than the plastic, bar-coded ones we have today. The paper card would be warm in my hand when the librarian removed it from the odd-looking mimeograph-type machine that recorded my stack of selections. It was the first card I ever owned with my name on it, and to this day I use it more than my driver’s license, voter registration card, and credit cards combined.
In those days there were no computer terminals in the library (computers still being decades away from widespread use), and no one had cell phones or smart phones, iPods or iPads, and thus the library was a much quieter place. The librarians, many of whom had received their degrees in Library Science in the years just before World War II, enforced this silence with the zeal of a born-again Jesuit. In fact, the only place as quiet (then or now) was the church. Perhaps this is another thing that made Keith link them in his quote.
I would wander through the stacks for hours, finding gems ranging from The Three Investigators series to Treasure Island and authors that I still read today like Dickens, Dumas, and Poe. Stumbling upon a book by accident and having it become a lifelong favorite is something that just can’t be done through an Internet search, no matter how many “recommendations” Amazon might give. And this is just one reason why I think libraries must, and will, survive in the new e-book world.
Libraries are a crucial part of our communities. In fact, most of us have taken libraries for granted since we were children, though libraries today (both school and public) are nothing like what most of us remember. The old card catalogues are gone, replaced by computerized searches, and the vast majority of libraries offer the free use of computers with Internet access. There are also typically activities for children and a wide variety of DVDs and CDs for far less than you’ll pay Netflix or iTunes (because they’re free). This is why usage by citizens has increased dramatically even as many public libraries face the stark reality of reduced staff, reduced operating hours, and even closure in our tough economic times.
Public libraries can also perform an invaluable service for those wanting to build their own personal library by allowing readers and collectors to “try before they buy.” Reading books for free first eliminates buying new books only to find that they’re not as good as the reviews claimed, and enables people to discover more new authors and titles than most of us could otherwise afford. Stopping at the library first can help you later to only spend money on books you know you want to collect. And even if you’re not a collector, few of us can afford to buy all of the books we want to read.
For those with children, there is nothing better than browsing the titles in the children’s section with them, only to come across a book you read in fourth grade (the same grade your son or daughter is in now). Sharing something from your childhood like The Three Investigators series with a whole new generation certainly beats sitting in front of the television watching the latest “American Idol” installment. Simply noticing which books your kids naturally gravitate toward will give you more insight into what interests them; you can then look for opportunities to encourage and build on those interests.
Libraries are a part of who we are and should never be taken for granted, lest we lose them. They are as much a part of the fabric of our communities as our churches, and much less divisive. As Keith rightly said, they are the great equalizer; if you can’t trust the man who co-wrote “Gimme Shelter” and “Sympathy for the Devil,” who can you trust?