“The only true equalizers in the world are books; the only treasure-house open to all comers is a library; the only wealth which will not decay is knowledge; the only jewel which you can carry beyond the grave is wisdom.”
– J. A. Langford
In this one quote J.A.Langford eloquently settles the debate about whether or not the public library is a dusty relic of the past-a has been, like beta tapes and 8 tracks, rendered obsolete by technology or a lighthouse shining its light beckoning those who are searching to a safe harbor of community, knowledge and insight. Public libraries are in most demand in times of great crisis. Just at the time when the spigot of public funding is tightened and the relevance of these institutions comes under scrutiny is when the public most uses the resources that the public library has to offer.
Depending on where you live your impression of the purpose of the public library may be greatly influenced by the services that you can receive there. My public library is a gem. It has taught my children to love books at circle times and family programs. It gave me a place to meet new moms and tots in mommy and me reading groups .It helped to maintain emerging reading skills through the dog days of summer by promoting reading through the summer reading game. It provided my children their first volunteer experience taking book reports from other younger readers .They host bi-lingual reading enrichment so ESL students are not left adrift over the summer. They offer literacy volunteers for those needing to learn to read. I have been entertained by magicians, historical impersonators and travelogues.
I have gotten videos and music and magazines that if they were not found on the library shelf I might never have known existed. I have been educated by first run films and critical reviews by a university professor .I have had my resume refined by a job coach and received financial advice from an expert. I have shared my writing in a writers group and learned to write my memoirs in an author led class. All of this I have gotten simply because I am lucky enough to have a public library card.
In times of great hardship, like this most recent financial crisis, the resources of the library become more relevant. If you are homeless or live in poverty and do not have public computer access,looking for a job is almost impossible. If you do not have computer skills getting that job is impossible. The public library offers computer access and computer training as well as vital networking opportunities. But beyond the services that the public library offers is what is at the very core of the libraries themselves that make them more relevant than ever before. It has been said that there is no place more democratic than the public library. The only requirement to enter is the interest to do so.
In the diverse times we are living in the library becomes a microcosm of the community that it serves. It may be one of the few places where young people encounter the elderly or the elderly encounter the youth. It may be the one place where the kids from the wrong side of the tracks run into the kids from the right side and find out that there really is no right or wrong side. Libraries are safe havens. A place where you can choose to remain anonymous and receive the benefit of shelter and safety for a time when there may be no such other place to do so. It is a place where a teen can go after school and not be home alone-it is a place for a senior to get out and enjoy a change of scenery. It is a place to connect.
It is that very misguided idea of connectivity that has people questioning the relevance of the word on the page. Technology has changed the way we get information-but not the way we should get information. Connecting to the Internet makes us no more expert at acquiring knowledge than before. A librarian is no less relevant today in guiding your Internet search than she was in pointing you to the right shelf. Yes, print material may be out of date too quickly with the rapid fire world we live in to make books relevant for many things, but libraries are about so much more than those words on the page in those dusty tomes that have become wallflowers since the computer took center stage.
Most of the people who have influenced us the most have said they were inspired as youngsters to read. I use my computer in my job and in my personal life all day long I depend on it. I have, at my fingertips, access to amazing things and a community of people, but when the day is done and I slide between the sheets I look over to the stack of books on my nightstand and grab one. I read until I can read no more and then I drift to sleep thinking about all I have read.To sleep, perchance to dream. The dream of public libraries will only die if we as a society deem them irrelevant to those of you waiting in the parking lot for the doors to slide open in the early morning light and you teens waiting for rides home when the last light dims in the evening. Let’s fight this good fight and help those who don’t know why we need public libraries to see the light.