While on a writing break, I’m taking the time to share some of my favorites from the More to Come archives. Hopefully you’ll find a new insight or something that you may have missed.
America is facing calls to ban and burn books. as author Ryan Holiday notes in his post Our country is filled with problems. Reading too many books isn’t one of them. That led me to look in the archives for something that would resonate on the topic. Libraries — places where books are central to civic life — quickly came to mind. In praise of public libraries — a longer version of this particular story —was originally posted on October 27, 2020.
Most communities have a place that even in technology-obsessed, anti-intellectual 21st-century America remains a surprisingly relevant bellwether institution: the public library.
Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America by James and Deborah Fallows provides a good example of why public libraries are both relevant and important. Our Towns is the story of a five year journey across the country — most of it undertaken at low altitude in a little propeller airplane — where the Fallows saw small and mid-sized towns that, in spite of hardship, also exhibited “the emerging pattern of American reinvention.”
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. *
James and Deborah Fallows found librarians in America’s public libraries committed to their communities, to reading, to learning, to public service, to the people who use their services, and to innovation. Librarians who are committed to books and what they can tell us beyond the crisis du jour of cable news networks and your Facebook feed.
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”. 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. 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.
A 2020 article in the Washington Post entitled “The pandemic took away our family’s second home: the public library” brought back those memories and more. 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 and Daddy 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.”
Dr. Vartan Gregorian, the savior of the New York Public Library, talked eloquently about the importance of these places when he made the case for saving that city’s library system.
“The New York Public Library is a New York and national treasure,’”he said. “The branch libraries have made lives and saved lives. The New York Public Library is not a luxury. It is an integral part of New York’s social fabric, its culture, its institutions, its media and its scholarly, artistic and ethnic communities. It deserves the city’s respect, appreciation and support. No, the library is not a cost center! It is an investment in the city’s past and future!”
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…
*See Deb Fallows post from November 2021 on how libraries continue to lead the way in America.
NOTE: If you want to read similar pieces on More to Come, consider:
- Thank God for the poets…and libraries (April 21, 2021)