I love libraries. They and the books within them have shaped my life.
The idea of libraries went back, evidently, to ancient Assyria, but libraries in the United States caught hold in 1731, when Benjamin Franklin founded the Philadelphia Library Company with a bunch of his friends. I’m pleased to note that it’s still in operation today and has, as you might guess, many of Franklin’s papers and all sorts of historic books and manuscripts, including the Mayflower Compact and first editions of Moby-Dick and Leaves of Grass. The current collection is over 500,000 books.
I have a t-shirt that says “I Love You to the Library and Back.” That’s what I should have said to my father. Every other Saturday, the bookmobile parked in the Rike’s Department Store parking lot, and I got my reading fix. I almost always checked out Green Eggs and Ham, until my mother told me that I should get something else, too. (My mother once tried to make me green eggs and ham. It worked for the eggs, but not so much for the ham. But I digress.) My dad drove me to the bookmobile and sometimes even to a small library just a bit farther away. I brought home double armloads of books and started reading them on the drive home.
Later on, my father even drove me to the library downtown, where I could check out a particular record album I loved and could find nowhere else (I now have it on iTunes, but this was long ago). Libraries now have CDs and DVDs and video games and ebooks and sometimes even tools you can check out. They also have computers that the public can use for searching the online “card catalog” and for their own wants and needs. They have children’s summer reading programs, storytimes, and crafts.
My father wasn’t really a reader himself until he was laid low by cancer and couldn’t even get to the room with the television. Beth McCarty, a family friend and the “traveling library lady,” brought books to shut-ins and never failed to bring my father bags of the Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey and Foxfire books he loved.
When I was in junior high, I volunteered to work in the school library during my free period, shelving books. It was there I became acquainted with Robert Heinlein’s juveniles and Ray Bradbury’s short stories, beginning my lifelong love of science fiction. (I once was concentrating so hard on the titles that I walked right off the little stool I needed to reach the upper shelves. But I digress again.)
I spent my undergrad college years working in the grad school library, which had closed stacks. I was a page and retrieved books for people and sent them down in what was essentially a dumbwaiter. It was my first exposure to the Library of Congress classification system, though it wouldn’t be my last. I loved the job, since when there weren’t any requests, I could read to my heart’s content from the topics shelved on whatever floor I was stationed on. In later life, I also read while on duty when I worked at an unsuccessful bookstore.
By the time I was a young adult (though older than what is called “young adult” these days in terms of fiction audiences) I made regular trips to the library. I discovered Sue Grafton’s alphabet series while she was still only a few letters in. Another type of fiction that I explored was children’s literature. The library never made me feel silly about checking out Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series. And I particularly haunted the new acquisitions shelf. I was always on the prowl for something I didn’t know about that sounded interesting.
I thought of the overdue fines I paid over the years as my little contributions to the libraries’ budget. (A much more substantial contribution to the Ohio libraries – over $600,000 – was made by comedian Drew Carey, who gave away what he had won on game shows, before he ever hosted one.)
Of course, if Ben Franklin were alive now (and I wish he was), the concept of libraries would most likely never have gotten off the ground. A place accessible to anyone where they could get books for free? Supported by our tax dollars? It’s hard to imagine that going through these days.
Anymore I think of librarians as a type of freedom fighter. They take access to books and the privacy of patrons seriously. Back in 2001, when the Patriot Act was passed, they refused to rat out their patrons based on what “unsuitable” books they checked out. Now, they resist efforts to remove books from their shelves based on the wishes of pressure groups.
At one point in my life, I seriously considered becoming a librarian myself. I sometimes still wish I had. I would be proud to join their ranks, even with the low pay, lack of funding, and political nonsense. It’s a job that needs doing, and always will.
(I’ll have more to say about libraries next week.)