Sunday, August 14, 2011

Think About Libraries

There are a number of problems in the United States: dysfunctional governments, failing public education programs, problematic justice systems, and an unmanageable national name just a few. These aren't new issues.

We Americans have gotten cocky, thinking that because we were once the "greatest" country, we always will be. Writes poet Charles Simic in a May, 2011, article, A Country Without Libraries: "[Our nation] no longer has the political will to arrest its visible and precipitous decline and save the institutions on which the workings of our democracy depend." He's referring to the large number of public libraries that have been closed down all over the country. When I was visiting Pasadena (CA) earlier this summer, I was saddened to see the large empty building that used to be a Borders bookstore. But Borders Group, Inc. is a corporation--I have very little sympathy for corporations. Libraries, on the other hand, are a public necessity. A closed-down empty building is sad, but an empty library is a crime. Not illegal, but it should be.

Libraries are part of many of my fondest childhood memories. Whenever I picture my elementary school, my mind's eye goes directly to the library. I remember it as the most well-lit and friendliest place in the school. Rainy days made the rest of the school seem dreary. Not the library though.

In the summers, it seemed like I spent much of my time at public libraries, in my own city and in the towns in Iowa and Indiana where either set of grandparents lived. I inhaled books, sometimes several "chapter books" a day. Encyclopedia Brown. Nancy Drew. The Mouse and the Motorcycle. Aldo Applesauce. And Ramona Quimby, of course. And that's just off the top of my head.

I was in awe when Stan and Jan Berenstain (of Berenstain Bears fame) came to our public library when I was five or six. These were the writers/artists who created the bears that I felt I knew as though they were my real friends! Brother Bear and Sister Bear went through the same things--first days of school, new friends, etc.--as I did. Meeting their creators was inspiring. A couple of years later, author Daniel Pinkwater came to the library. Another year, it was author Marc Brown.

My first semester in college was a disaster. I was several states away from home and had a roommate who disliked me to the point of making my world as miserable as possible. I spent almost all of my time in the college library, only returning to the dorm to sleep. I read constantly--it was my only means of escape. (As a result, I also aced that semester!)

Fast-forward to the late '90s, living on my own, after college. I had an apartment that was freezing in the winter and way too hot in the summer, but I could walk the three blocks or so to the public library. And that's exactly what I did almost every other day after work. I decided right then that I always had to live within walking distance to a library (and, except for one lone year, I always have).

When I read Simic's article, I realized I was not alone in my sentiments. He states: "Like many other Americans of my generation, I owe much of my knowledge to thousands of books I withdrew from public libraries over a lifetime." I am not of Simic's generation, but I concur with his statement. If libraries continue to close due to lack of funding, what will happen to current and future generations' wealth (or poverty?) of knowledge?

As I've mentioned in previous entries, I started this blog in part because I have observed that people (in general; Americans, in particular) are getting stupider. It seems as though we've let the generations before us do all the work, and now we are coasting along as if everything is peachy--never bothering to analyze situations, think independently, take a stand, or act ethically. Obviously I'm generalizing, and I'll never claim to know the way to correct our broken systems. All I know is that we need to think about what is wrong, take a stand against unethical practices, and do something to make a change.

Writing and thinking are what I know how to do.


  1. What a great post. I'm not sure if inciting thought is possible but it's certainly a very good idea! Libraries are amazing things- both transformative and life-saving. In the UK our libraries are also threatened. I think it's important not to be too harsh on people though. The difficulty of thinking independently and critically is enormous. The mass media and even the social media like homogeneous behaviour. Even the education system can stifle unorthodox thinking. And everybody's lives are busy with all kinds of stuff. Thank you so much for this inspiring post with its mention of a fine poet. John.

  2. Thank you, John! I appreciate the comments.

  3. It's sad how such trends such as the decline in the importance of public libraries have such serious consequences, but because these consequences are so complicated and nebulous, it is easy how such things tend to slide by without provoking outrage.

    I too spent a great deal of time in libraries as a child, and have literally been changed as a person as a result. I have been exposed to the best minds in history of mankind, developed my own creativity and tastes, absorbed different cultres and ideologies - and all for free.

    As a student, most of my library time is now spent in study/research, but I still visit various libraries for pleasure, and still miss libraries of old, they really are like their own ecosystems.

    It is funny that in terms of funding, we here in Australia have a strange case where efforts are made to fund libraries, but nobody seems to make use of them. Public libraries are always boasting shiny new technology nooks and building upgrades, and they are often deserted. The convenience of the web is certainly a factor, but sadly I also get the impression that at its heart, the problem is that the very act of reading is becoming devalued.

    We do not need to predict dire outcomes from this, we see them already - a whole generation unaware of anything that occurred before the 1990s, dislocated from rich cultural histories, wondering why their ever riskier search for momentary thrills don't seem to satisfy.

    It's hard to see how these trends will change. Depressing.

  4. I agree with your outlook on the Public Library system. I adore reading and although I must admit the last few years I have stopped frequenting my own city's library, I still read. You are an amazing writer and this post is so concisely written.

    Public schools are not creating free thinkers because of the illogical dependence on standerized testing to prove a school's worth. Even when you want to teach outside of the prescribed norm, the majority of the time you are demonized. We have deemed libraries as money drainers but do not realize the impact it could have on those who frequent them.

    I am a believer in lead by example. I read therefore my children will see me read. Our culture is no longer one that prides itself in education instead we flaunt celebrities, reality stars, and debutantes as being the standard Idolization.

    Creative Minds, scientists, artists, musicians who play insterments,and so one are left behind when they should be revered. we are creating a cookie cutter society that thinks Art is whimisical when instead we need to embrace it as a way to think outside of the norm.

    Sorry, for the long rant.

  5. Jessie,

    THANK YOU for your "rant"--I am glad that there are other thinkers out there who see what is going on. I detest the way people idolize celebrities and reality stars. Not only do I have no interest in watching those "create-a-star" shows, but I also dislike what they do to our society. I'll hear people discussing the latest dance or song competition show, but ask them about the latest book they've read? They just might look at you as though you have two noses!

    I appreciate your thoughts.... And they made me think of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. What does the future hold without creative and in-depth thought? Without people who read?

    Thank you for posting!


  6. When you write you are required to think and you observe how little the rest of life makes such a demand.

    ~Elizabeth Hardwick