Most communities have a place that even in technology-obsessed, locked-down 21st century America remains a surprisingly relevant bellwether institution: the public library.
I was thinking about libraries as I finished reading Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America by James and Deborah Fallows. Published in 2018, Our Towns is the story of a five-year journey across the country, most of it taken at low altitude in a little propeller airplane. Along the way, the Fallows saw small and mid-sized towns that had faced economic hardship, political crises, and job losses. They also saw “the emerging pattern of American reinvention.” And one of the first places they stopped in each town to gather local information and to gauge the character of the community was the public library.
I thoroughly enjoyed the couple’s take on what America looks like away from the big cities and the corporate media, even if I felt that the focus on the economic development directors of the world and the craft beer revival may have received too much play. (And I love craft beer.) One key element they saw time and time again was the importance of a strong, revitalized downtown to community health and spirit, and in their book they highlighted the work of Main Street America, where I once served on the board. Their primary point — that there exists a great deal of vibrancy off the beaten path — fits with my perceptions taken from journeys across the country and work through the years.
But since the trip took place prior to the pandemic, the upheaval over racial justice, increased environmental devastation through fires and hurricanes, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the disruptive presidential election, I came away thinking that much of what they found would require some type of 2020 reality check. Thankfully, their Our Towns website has stories that deal with this most challenging of years, produced with the same straightforward, non-judgmental approach that does not gloss over the issues but speaks to the energy and renewal possible across the country.
In America’s public libraries, James and Deborah Fallows found librarians committed to their communities, to reading, to learning, to public service, to the people who use their services, and to innovation. People who are probably very much like my mother, a life-long reader who served for decades as the children’s librarian in our hometown.
Yes, my mother was known throughout our community as “Queen Helen, the Storytime Queen” and I could always count on a little ribbing from my friends when her picture — dressed in her royal robes and crown — appeared in our local paper. But she knew all the children who used the library and their parents as well, and she was adored and appreciated. Mom was eager to point child and parent alike to a book that fit the need in that family at that moment. Her commitment to reading and education was one reason our family established the Helen Brown Scholarship Fund at First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro after her too-early death from cancer. For more than two decades, it has helped young people attend college, even though mother never had that opportunity in her own life. Most of the recipients never knew my mother, but they are blessed by her life and legacy. My sister Carol followed in her footsteps and now serves as the branch librarian at the same public library where Mom spent so many years.
All of these memories and stories came flooding back into my mind as I read an article in Monday’s Washington Post entitled “The pandemic took away our family’s second home: the public library.” Writer Maggie Smith notes that while she misses a wide variety of places where she used to visit, “One of the places my kids and I miss most is the public library.”
When our children were young, my wife and the twins would go to the Staunton Public Library — located downtown in a repurposed and restored historic school building — on a regular basis. There they attended story-time and special events, or just read books that piqued their interest. At the end of each visit they would pick out a dozen or more treasures to bring home in our book box. I would tag along when work allowed, and the cycle repeated itself every week for several years. Smith tells a similar story as she and her children would visit their public library in Bexley, Ohio, once or twice a week. And just like as in Staunton,
“The children’s section is on the basement level, where you can look through the windows and see people’s shoes as they walk in the small courtyard outside. We’d descend the stairs together — or take the elevator when one of the kids was still in a stroller — and round the corner into a wonderland of books, puzzles and toys.”
Our children acquired a life-long passion for reading and writing, and they fit into a family pattern. Mother loved to read and write, and my sister Carol and I acquired that same gene. Smith suggests that we “become readers before we discover we’re writers, and we become readers by being exposed to literature early and often.” It is our public libraries that make this exposure possible, free of charge. “Public libraries,” she adds, “are where readers — and, therefore, writers — are born.”
Smith’s final words resonate with me and so many others who love public libraries and all they embody about what is good about our country. She is especially touched these days when she sees the “Together We Will See It Through” banner hanging on the front door of the Bexley public library since the lockdown began. She writes that she “choked up the first time I noticed it.”
Together we will see this dark, difficult time through — and on the other side, we will gather in our favorite places again. My kids and I will walk back to the library, head downstairs and round the corner to see the faces we know….My son and daughter will be thrilled to be let loose in the stacks again, choosing their own books, and I’ll probably catch up with the librarians, my arms full of poetry and movies. When we leave, I’ll say, “See you soon,” because of course we will.“
In the first two decades of the 21st century, libraries have reinvented themselves* to serve a public that has very different needs from those of the first two decades of the 20th century or even the 1960s and 1970s of my youth. But they have done so in style, and have remained incredibly relevant, to the point that two journalists, flying across America in a small plane to get a sense of how the country is handling all this change, wouldn’t think of starting their search without a stop at the local public library.
More to come…
NOTE: The Washington, DC public library system has remade itself with a commitment to excellent modern architecture, reinvented public space, and vital city life. Read this article in the Washingtonian magazine about the overall project, as well as this review in the Washington Post of the city’s rehabilitation of the landmark Mies van der Rohe flagship library (although I disagree with some of Kennicott’s opening “woe is the library and America” language. Perhaps he needs to get out into the small towns more frequently.)