Lately it seems like everyone is talking about libraries. Politicians here in Sweden want to make libraries more “boy-friendly” (and by this they seem to mean that we should have game consoles in the libraries–I am not sure how that will encourage boys to read more but go figure) rather than more e-friendly. In my hometown of Philadelphia, there’s been talk of closing library branches rather than trying to rethink what could help make libraries more important to communities. And in Camden, New Jersey–the economy has been so bad they’ve talked about closing all of the city’s public libraries simply because they can no longer afford them. And this talk saddens me.
I grew up in West Philadelphia in a neighborhood that was teetering between middle class and working class. My parents valued education and sent my brother, sister and me to an elementary school in downtown Philadelphia because there were no good neighborhood schools in our area. Or rather, none they thought were good enough for us. Out of the three of us, I was the one bitten by the reading bug. Maybe it was because there were no children in my neighborhood who were the same age as me. Everyone was either my sister’s age (four years older than me) or my brother’s age (four years younger than me). All of my friends lived in Center City, and I only got to hang out with them at the weekends. So the local library on the corner of 40th and Walnut Streets was where I spent a lot of my childhood. As soon as I was old enough to get a library card, I spent nearly every afternoon there, doing my homework since it was quiet, looking for new books to read and discovering a world outside of West Philadelphia. A world that involved new languages to be learned, new places to dream of visiting. But I also went to the library because I needed some place to think. My parents’ marriage was rocky and being at home when my dad was not in a good mood–which always seemed to be our fault, meant that going to the library meant I could avoid his anger (which I now know came from his being resentful that my mother was becoming more and more independent thanks to her job and also because he was seeing other women and resented being “stuck” with us). So the library kept me sane when I thought everything going wrong in my parents’ relationship was the fault of my sister, my brother and me. It was where I learned to use a computer, it was where I learned how to do the research that would eventually help me get into college. It was where I figured out a lot of what I wanted in life.
I don’t think I am alone in seeing libraries as a lifeline. I wish politicians would think about that instead of seeing libraries as something unnecessary or a simple budgetary “problem”. So when I read Laura Miller’s article on salon.com, it really struck a chord. We cannot have an enlightened society without libraries and education. And the many people who go to the libraries to find peace, to discover new worlds, to realize they enjoy reading, they need libraries.
They don’t need a place to play video games (hear that, politicians in Stockholm?!?!) and they don’t need a place to drink a latte. They need someplace where they can borrow books and e-books since so many bookstores are closing or because they cannot afford to buy books or e-book readers. They need a place where they can hear a local author or historian give a talk about something they are interested in. They need a place to discover a sense of community and to be glad that they live in a time where books and words are available to everyone and not just the elite.