From the time I was nine or ten, old enough to wander around on my own, if I wasn’t at the local movie house for the creature double feature you’d find me at the library. I could stroll in for free, spend the day with nose buried in books, and then wobble to the desk with an armful to take home. Then I’d bring that pile back a couple of weeks later and do it all over again. I never understood why there weren’t lines around the block.
For the most part I was an ordinary kid. I played basketball and softball. I watched a lot of TV. I rode my bike. I looked for creative ways to annoy my big sister (an important part of a little brother’s job description). But then as now, the big draw for me was reading. I caught the bug from my parents, who constantly had their faces stuck in books. With Dad it was westerns and mysteries, while Mom devoured historical novels and the kinds of hospital romances that later gave way to TV soap operas.
There was no better place to scratch that itch than the public library. I could wander the place and check out anything that caught my eye. There were no parents, no teachers to say, “No, I think that’s probably for when you’re a little older.” Sometimes I’d sit at the table with a book and put it back in just a few minutes. But then there were times like the day I stumbled over the wonderfully terrifying work of H.P. Lovecraft.
Another time I grabbed at random a book by Pearl Buck. (I thought she had an interesting name.) It was “The Good Earth,” the quietly profound, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that showed China’s transition from ancient to modern times through the lens of one farm family’s life. I read the whole book sitting in a chair at in the library, mesmerized. I checked it out, took it home, and read it again. It was after reading that novel I realized that someday, somehow, I wanted to be a story teller.
It’s more important than ever that those of us who love libraries do what we can to help them survive and thrive. In many towns the local mall’s replaced the town square and sometimes the library’s the only democratic, accessible public space left for people to gather. We have to tell our elected officials clearly and forcefully that as voters we support our libraries. If our local systems have “friends of the library” associations we need to look for ways to get involved.
We all know that the role of the library is changing rapidly. Libraries are learning to adapt, with their banks of computers and increased focus on offering readings and other community events. Even so, with the Internet and the emergence of eBooks some people consider the traditional library model outdated. A few American high school libraries have gone so far as to do away with hard copy books. Obviously, print books have to “share the road” with new technologies, but I believe (at least, I hope) that there’ll always be room for books and the libraries that preserve and present them.
According to legend a reporter once asked John Dillinger why he robbed banks. He replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Thirty years from now, if you ask a teenager at the check-out desk, “Why do you hang out in libraries,” I hope she responds, “Because that’s where the books are.”