This is a good piece by Charles Simic on “A Country Without Libraries”, discussing the loss and shrinking availability of public libraries. Although people increasingly rely on information obtained via the internet, the access to such information made possible by the library is crucial for those who cannot afford their own computers and connections. In addition, librarians are experts who can help people navigate to useful, accurate information on the web, as opposed to whatever may show up through a cursory search.
My experience with libraries was similar to Simic’s. I too felt a sense of awe at realizing I could freely browse a vast array of books and other materials on all subjects, and even take some home with me for a while. Each time I realized the potential of some new library resource–rock albums, opera CD’s, government documents, maps–this sense of awe and joy was renewed. The physical library itself was a place to escape undisturbed into the delights of reading and studying. For my children (ages 4 and 8), the library is primarily a special place one goes to have fun–and think of the lifelong lesson this teaches, that a roomful of books is a place of fun! They love to walk the seemingly endless rows of books we don’t have at home, and find colorful, comfortable places to sit and read them. Sometimes a librarian even reads books to a group of kids, with interesting props. Narrowing down the “take-home” books to a reasonable number is always a tough decision–a bit like being loose in a candy shop!
In college, I shelved books in the library and thereby gained a wonderful education in philosophy and religion (i.e. the “B” section, the special area assigned to me for regular organizing). When serious quiet was needed for studying, I sought out the tiny physics and chemistry libraries on campus, which inevitably led to browsing and then learning much more about both of those subjects. Though I browse many good sources on the internet, time spent there is also filled with other distractions, like checking email from work, the weather forecast, or the status of the recent online purchase. In the library, browsing usually began by finding a book I needed, followed by noticing other exciting books nearby on the shelf, and then tracking down further citations from a footnote. Though some of the books weren’t great, most were excellent sources of in-depth information and analysis. Such works are also found online, but much of what I see here is designed for brevity, for the reader who wants to take a quick look and then move on. This can be convenient, but sifting through whole books at a time requires a different set of intellectual skills. One learns to recognize quality sources, to locate details without being guided, and to be patient enough to follow complex ideas down a longer path. The library allowed me to exercise those abilities in a pleasant environment. I hope that people continue to recognize the importance of these wonderful institutions, and fight to ensure that we don’t lose them!