Images of a library

In an earlier post, I mentioned that many people have tried to express the intangible benefits of libraries, and far better than I would be able to. The truth is that even now, I don’t fully know what a library is to me—I’m still morphing, growing, and while I don’t mean to suggest that growth process ever stops or that books and libraries have not had a staggering, readily apparent impact upon myself and my life, I do believe that I am quite simply too young yet to have the sense of perspective and wonder of the authors featured below. I feel it—and I am moved by it—but I’m just old enough to know how young I still am, and how little I truly understand. I recognize that I’m being more esoteric than I usually am in this forum, so from here on out I’ll let others do the talking.

A country without libraries

Poet Charles Simic writes about what libraries are to him—and to the country—in The New York Review of Books:

In Oak Park, Illinois, when I was in high school, I went to the library two or three times a week, though in my classes I was a middling student. Even in wintertime, I’d walk the dozen blocks to the library, often in rain or snow, carrying a load of books and records to return, trembling with excitement and anticipation at all the tantalizing books that awaited me there. The kindness of the librarians, who, of course, all knew me well, was also an inducement. They were happy to see me read so many books, though I’m sure they must have wondered in private about my vast and mystifying range of interests.

I’d check out at the same time, for instance, a learned book about North American insects and bugs, a Louis-Ferdinand Céline novel, the poems of Hart Crane, an anthology of American short stories, a book about astronomy and recordings by Bix Beiderbecke and Sidney Bechet. I still can’t get over the generosity of the taxpayers of Oak Park. It’s not that I started out life being interested in everything; it was spending time in my local, extraordinarily well-stacked public library that made me so.

Letters to young readers

Upon the opening of a public library in Troy, MI, 1971, a children’s libraran asked some notable figures to write a letter to young patrons about the importance of libraries. (The entire collection of letters is available in PDF form.) Isaac Asimov responded:

Congratulations on the new library, because it isn’t just a library. It is a space ship that will take you to the farthest reaches of the Universe, a time machine that will take you to the far past and the far future, a teacher that knows more than any human being, a friend that will amuse you and console you—and most of all, a gateway, to a better and happier and more useful life.

So did Ronald Reagan:

A world without books would be a world without light—without light, man cannot see. Through the written word a world of enlightenment has been created and has taught us about the past to enable us to build for the future.

Without spending a penny, one can travel to the ends of the earth, the depths of the oceans and now, through the infinity of space. One can learn a new trade or improve his skills in an old one, and the list is endless. The material offered by your library covers the span of interest from the youngest child even before he learns to read to the eldest of our senior citizens.

And John Berryman:

You are lucky to have now a free library. Until comparatively recent times there were no books for children at all; their mothers told them stories; instead of that, unfortunately, you have probably been watching television, and that is mostly a waste of time. In a book called The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, you will find a descriptive line, “Turfy mountains where live nibbling sheep”, and it will be years before you will understand just how powerful this line is, but even now you may see that it enriches your mind more than half an hour of TV.

And Mary Hemingway:

Chief among the pleasures we give our friends and receive from them is the mutual exchange of ideas, impressions and conclusions. It will always be a stimulating and exciting process.

A library is like a roomful of friends, each one with his own story or observations ready and waiting to be discovered. It offers lifelong friendship that never fails.

♦ ♦

What is a library to you? What is your first memory of walking into one as a child? How have libraries influenced you and your life? The answers to these questions don’t always come easy, but I think it’s worth at least trying to work through them. With so many other things clamoring for attention, the next generation of young readers might not stick around long enough to experience what we have. It’s our responsibility not only to keep library doors open, but also to generate interest and to help guide and inspire the next generation of library patrons.

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