Shame & Neglect

    What has become of the sanctity of the library? Am I just a blind devotee to the magic of these places, or have things changed? I’m not just talking about noise levels and rowdy children, though I know that these issues have been in the news lately.  More than that, I wonder at people’s use, expectations and respect of libraries in general.  

   Being a bookish sort of person all my life, the library has always been a haven for me. As a kid, I'd spend my Saturday mornings there and I still remember the thrill of becoming ‘old enough’ to go upstairs, graduating from the children’s section to the more grown-up area that was filled with, to my mind, the rest of the world and all that awaited me beyond my childhood years. The smell of old books, the rich textures and colors of the stacks, and being surrounded by more titles than I could ever dream of owning (and believe me, I dreamed of owning a lot), all created a quiet magic about the building. To be able to go anywhere in history, be impacted by lives already lived and influenced by events I’d been born too late to experience firsthand, was the stuff my childhood dreams were made of. Who did I want to be? Where did I want to go? What did I want to become? All the possibilities lay before me, as yet unknown but not unreachable. To me, the library was the greatest escape from my own uneventful life, and promised a world of potential.

   Where I now live, the library is located in the town park, which is populated with a playground, soccer and softball fields, tennis courts and a pavilion. I was talking with the library director one Saturday last fall when a woman came up and asked where the bathroom was. After pointing her in the right direction, the director returned her attention to me and seemed amused at the puzzled look on my face.

  “Did she think the bathrooms had been moved?” I asked, not wanting to acknowledge a growing awareness of the other, unimaginable possibility bubbling up in my brain, that perhaps this woman had never been to the library before.  “Chris,” the director said to me gently, “today is SoccerFest (an annual tournament of all the youth soccer teams in town). The whole town turns out for it. We see people during SoccerFest that we’ve never seen before.”

   It took me days to get my head around this. The only people who attend SoccerFest are parents of soccer-playing children. Why would parents, of all people, not come to the library? I have been bringing my children at least once a week since they were infants. It is where I met my first friends as a new mom, connected with other mothers, and began my quest for the best baby and children’s books to read, and later own, as my children developed reading tastes and personalities. The library offers quiet time, a wealth of programs and resources, movies, music, puzzles and books for us as individuals and as a family, and it’s all free! Why, why, why isn’t every parent and child plugged into this incredible piece of our town? I am still in a quandary.

   This year, our library director moved on to one with a bigger building, generous budget, more programs, larger staff and greater opportunities.  The local newspaper sent around a reporter to interview her before she left, and he was there when I stopped in to give her a farewell gift and hug.  Some weeks later, I went to the library to read the article but I could not find the section of the paper in which it had run. I asked the research librarian about it. She said they had discovered the newspaper missing that morning; someone had stolen it. To me this was an ironic but telling action that underscored the director’s departure. But more than that, I think it shows that there are even worse behaviors when it comes to people’s use of the library; my director had just been too kind to burden me with them.

   In a world where children cannot go to school because of poverty and oppression, this is a sad statement about our own society.  That we give no thought to abusing a resource that offers free education on any topic we choose; that libraries must practically beg for more money to provide additional services and hours; that they are staffed largely by volunteers who many choose to verbally abuse and disrespect, makes me embarrassed to be a part of such a gro

  I am not that old. I understand that the Internet has changed the way we think about knowledge and research, and these are things no longer solely provided by libraries. But I know I am not alone in believing that the library is an essential supplement to any public education system. In this age of technology, if children are not taught to frequent and use the library, they will instead fall back on Internet research alone, something that is far from reliable or tangible. Sadly, the practice will also ultimately end up producing a generation that neither knows nor cares about using libraries at all.

   Let’s revisit our priorities. It’s time we start giving the library its proper due, to teach our children not only the importance, but the magic of reading, and make them aware of the privilege they have by being given free access to libraries. As a bookworm, I feel there is nothing like the sensation of a whole building full of people in silent concentration, and that no web page can replace the feeling of a book in your lap, or your fingers between the pages.  But I also believe that the thirst for knowledge, regardless of the medium from which that knowledge comes, begins in childhood. By giving our children the foundation of a starting point — a building devoted to furthering the mind and expanding horizons — we are providing them with a mental springboard that can take them anywhere they want to go.  

And aren’t endless possibilities what all parents want for their children?