My hometown library, thankfully not shuttered yet.
I woke up this morning to this heartbreaking post by Charles Simic:
All across the United States, large and small cities are closing public libraries or curtailing their hours of operations. Detroit, I read a few days ago, may close all of its branches and Denver half of its own: decisions that will undoubtedly put hundreds of its employees out of work. When you count the families all over this country who don’t have computers or can’t afford Internet connections and rely on the ones in libraries to look for jobs, the consequences will be even more dire. People everywhere are unhappy about these closings, and so are mayors making the hard decisions. But with roads and streets left in disrepair, teachers, policemen and firemen being laid off, and politicians in both parties pledging never to raise taxes, no matter what happens to our quality of life, the outlook is bleak.
I don’t know of anything more disheartening than the sight of a shut down library. No matter how modest its building or its holdings, in many parts of this country a municipal library is often the only place where books in large number on every imaginable subject can be found, where both grownups and children are welcome to sit and read in peace, free of whatever distractions and aggravations await them outside.
I've written here before about the decay of public infrastructure for some similar reasons, though it focused on nuts and bolts like roads and street lamps. Libraries are just as vital a piece of infrastructure.
This one hits home for me. The main family heirloom, passed down by my great-grandfather, is a set of 1912 Harvard classics. My mother, a schoolteacher, found ways to make sure that what ever else went on in our lives, whatever lack of money we were struggling with, there were always books around. Frequently, that was possible because of a public library.
For the short-sighted, it's an easy target. Books, after all, will still exist and, besides, goes the dismissal, there's the internet.
Yeah, no shit. Undoubtedly even the occasional Victorian street urchin had some access to books and outside knowledge, but that misses the damn point.
Libraries' greatest service isn't for the well-off, who can get education and information relatively easily in any era. Instead, its crowning achievement is opening up knowledge to those large parts of society — the unfashionable neighborhoods, the rural swaths — that the tastemakers and futurists usually ignore.
Ignored doesn't mean nonexistent, of course, and for those populations, libraries are a major resource. One, that unlike a lot of other services, doesn't lecture. We're open, read what you want.
It is the best kind of egalitarianism: available to everyone, relatively cheap, and rewarding initiative. Libraries don't require the upfront cash or monthly bills that internet access does, and are open to non-tech savvy parts of the population. Often, they include local collections or obscure texts that the internet has, for the large part, ignored. Hell, they even open access to that same new media to those who can't afford it.
As if all that wasn't enough, libraries complement the education systems in place, because even if those are magically reformed, tomorrow, there's inevitably things their curriculums will leave out.
Even at points in my childhood when public education was lacking, access to a library took up some of the slack. Thanks to them, I first learned about dueling political theories, Alexander the Great, Chinese history and evolution, to name just a few.
If you think I'm drawing too much from my personal past, consider that there are millions out there who owe the same debt.
The presence of a library, even in the smallest community, is a reminder that the world is more than what's right in front of you, and that ideas aren't just the province of the rich.
History, from one view, can mark catastrophes by the destruction of libraries. For the power-hungry and zealous, the rooms full of books were a threat, or expendable.
Today, we don't need invaders. Just a smug belief in our own advancement, and a blind refusal to pay the bill.