This blog is basically about how good books are nice and bad books are the pits. And then I get grumpy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

libraries are fundamental and, the library card as literary passport

One of the best things about modern life is the circulating library. That we can go to a big building (or a small one) and take away loads of books (and CDs and DVDs and other stuff, too) for a few weeks without paying a cent (unless you count overdue and lost fines) is an amazing thing, and a great edifier for the soul and intellect of a society.

Think of it: If you don't have any money for recreation - and there's a lot of that going around these days when a movie costs more than an hour's minimum wage - you can still read books. If you don't have money for a paperback - again, an hour of minimum wage often doesn't cover a mass-market - there's always the library.

A library card is like a literary passport. It gets you - really your mind - into places it would otherwise have a very difficult time being allowed into. Borders and Barnes and Noble don't let hoards of students sit in their caf├ęs monopolizing books (i.e. merchandise) and table space so thet can complete their twenty page research papers. Libraries do.

To be sure, I love owning books. But, come on, you can't have everything and, when it comes to books, should only HAVE TO HAVE very little, if anything. Who can live without a dictionary? Most people have one, probably. But even if you don't, every town or group of towns has reference materials. This is as it should be.

A library provides a way for a determined yet penniless person to learn about any topic he or she wants. It doesn't take the place of a school system, but it's a necessary supplement and often an educational lifeline. It is a fundamental component of intellectual life for a people who wish to be lifelong learners and informed voters. And it's fun.

I feel rich that I have the benefit of cards to four different library systems. And I'd venture to guess that it's historically and geographically exceptional experience to live in a time and place when libraries are considered a basic human right, or nearly so. Many of our ancestors would have felt like royalty if they could have stepped into a city library and stepped out with a three week reading supply that could outlast the pace of a book a day.

And it's an exquisite privilege to have a public library system that goes out-of-state to find patrons books that it lacks in its own collection. And don't forget all the internet resources. From my corner of the world, I have searched databases in Europe and all over the United States, which is a great research tool.

So I think it's disgusting that towns and cities feel they have to close libraries as a remedy for the bad fiscal health of their budgets. It's disgusting that, perhaps, they are correct. If the choice is an adequate police force or books, obviously bodily safety comes first. I just hope that everyone remembers that, ultimately, the safety and health of societies lie in education and access to information. We need our bodies so we can live and function; we need our minds to make living worthwhile.

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