Why Libraries Matter

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by Clover Carroll

Whenever budget cutting gets underway, library services always seem to be one of the first things to go on the chopping block. With some Albemarle County Supervisors questioning the need to contribute to a regional library system, and wondering whether building “bricks and mortar” libraries is even necessary any longer, it behooves us to reflect on why libraries are essential, even with the advent of the Internet and ebooks. New York clergyman and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher’s conclusion that “a library is not a luxury, but one of the necessities of life,” is as true today as when he said it in the late 19th century.

Throughout world history, from Egypt to India to the Islamic empire to medieval monasteries, libraries have been prized as preservers and transmitters of culture, bastions of learning, and necessary foundations for intellectual exploration and scientific advancement. In Renaissance Europe, “libraries were places where ideas were exchanged and where scholarship and reading were considered both pleasurable and beneficial to the mind and soul,” recounts Stuart A. P. Murray in The Library: an Illustrated History. Libraries were integral to the foundation of America, from the 17th century Boston Town Hall library, to Benjamin Franklin’s 18th century Library Company of Philadelphia, to Thomas Jefferson’s sale (for a song) of his own personal book collection to the Library of Congress after it was destroyed in the fire of 1814, to steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s 19th century donation of over 1,400 library buildings throughout the United States to help bring about the “improvement of mankind.” Before 1900 when access to public schools became widespread, libraries served as cultural hubs in many communities, where the public could hear notable speakers—such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, and Mark Twain—poetry readings, and discuss the issues of the day, all for free.

Libraries have long been considered a cornerstone of democracy. “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” wrote Jefferson. Public libraries are vital to democracy because they provide free access to information—in the form of books, video recordings, computers, Internet access, and informational programming. In America we still believe that the race is not to the swiftest, richest, or most powerful; it is to the most inventive, the most productive, the most hard-working.  And how do we improve our condition? How do we “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps”? Through self-education, inquiry, and ingenuity. This is the essence of the American Dream that politicians love to talk about preserving. Knowledge is indeed power, the power to better oneself, to become an informed voter, to protect oneself as a consumer, to start a new business.

Libraries are not only gateways to knowledge that allow our citizens to educate themselves, but also a major tool in overcoming the digital divide. In the Information Age more than ever, when not everyone can afford to own a TV, a computer, a newspaper subscription or even Internet access, public libraries provide free access to the information necessary for full participation in society. The library is a place where people of all income levels can go to read the news, read the latest magazine issue, learn, do research, access the Internet, send email, fill out an online college or job application, take an enlightening book home with them, or these days, download it to a mobile device—all for free!  And more importantly, this sanctuary of learning is staffed by a trained librarian to guide patrons through the maze of information and find the answers they are looking for.

Libraries are public spaces, community gathering places, which have become rarer over time with the decline in community centers and other common spaces. They are the glue that brings and holds a community together. As Caroline Kennedy pointed out in her keynote address at the I Love My Librarian Award Ceremony in December, “libraries are…busy social hubs for the exchange of life skills and information. They have become community centers in the very best sense—places where we build community and weave together lives and dreams. The unemployed come to find job training and job opportunities, new immigrants come to learn English, students use the library for college readiness and college access, and adolescents can explore difficult social and emotional issues in the safe space of a library.”

Kennedy continued by elucidating perhaps the most important role of the library. “One of the hallmarks of a great civilization is the preservation of and access to information—libraries. But  [how can we] explain why libraries are so often under attack—even in our own time? Why it is that Mao’s army destroyed Tibetan libraries? Why did the Germans target the medieval library in Louvain, Belgium and follow that with the sweeping destruction and confiscation of libraries throughout central Europe? Why did the Serbs burn the great multi-cultural Bosnian National Library? And here at home, why were nine people arrested in 1961 during the first “read-in” at a segregated public library in Jackson, Mississippi? And why did the Patriot Act seek to obtain the personal borrowing records of library patrons? Not only because libraries are important symbols of a civilized society, but because they are, in a sense, tabernacles of personal freedom: freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of opportunity, and the true test of liberty—freedom to dissent.”

In 1971 in a letter to the children of Troy, New York on the occasion of the opening of their new public library, renowned scientist and writer Isaac Asimov wrote: “Congratulations on the new library, because it isn’t just a library.  It is a space ship that will take you to the farthest reaches of the Universe, a time machine that will take you to the far past and the far future, a teacher that knows more than any human being, a friend that will amuse you and console you— and most of all, a gateway to a better and happier and more useful life.” Let us visualize our new Crozet library as all of these things and more: a hub of learning, bastion of freedom, cultural center, community center, the heart and soul of our beautiful, inquiring town.