In Defense of Libraries
You hear of one library, that people loved and commended, being closed down, the building repurposed (I imagine)... you hear of some group or budget or person threatening to close down a library, and folks are in an uproar… you hear of libraries, across the globe, experiencing diminishing visitors, dwindling funds, decreasing support, and a smaller sense of purpose. Photos are posted, vintage or contemporary, of the world’s most beautiful libraries (works of art in and of themselves), of what libraries are or should or could be… all designed to provoke nostalgia, sympathy, pocketbook-opening, picketing.
But I wasn’t fazed. I didn’t care. Not even when I admittedly love libraries: for what they symbolize, what they house, and how significant they were in my childhood.
That was a long time ago—childhood and the last time I stepped foot in a library. While traveling or just driving through the local neighborhood, I’ll notice every sign indicating “Here, a Library Stands,” and I’ll look at said library building, admire it, remember what it feels like to casually stroll through the stacks without purpose, open to being unexpectedly grabbed by something completely random, by something someone wrote once, someone else put on a shelf, and there it sits, available to me to delve into like an adventure waiting to unfold. But I still didn’t care, not about libraries disappearing, about the people who worked and earned money there and wouldn’t be anymore, nor about that environment no longer being available to me, one day, when all the libraries are gone. Because I don’t need them anymore, nor does anyone else. Right?
The plague killing off libraries is “progress,” technological advancement, the natural evolution of things, the planet’s ceaseless spinning… like the plague ravaging DVD rental shops and bookstores, standalone computer fix-it shops, and street corners without coffee shops.
I don’t care about the death of libraries because I don’t need them. If I don’t, why does anyone else? But thinking only of oneself is always a bad idea.
For me, in my childhood, libraries were amazing, magic things—like Disney World or Christmas—because…
They housed books, a seemingly infinite supply, and I loved books. Libraries let me have books.
The books were free, and I had no money of my own. I could borrow and read as many books as I wanted, simply because I wanted them—equivalent, for a child, to being let loose in a candy shop so big that you thought you’d never be able to taste all the different kinds of candy in your lifetime and being allowed to taste it all for free, just by asking.
They allowed me to read on any subject, any length book, without questioning or limiting my choices and freedom based on my age or gender or perceived reading ability or the material’s “appropriateness.”
More than mere stories, the libraries housed history, information, knowledge… also in seemingly infinite supply. Libraries knew more than mom and dad did, and they would answer me honestly, without hesitation or judgement, and thoroughly. And they would even encourage more questions.
They supported and encouraged me to follow my interests, satiating my curiosity, wherever it led. If I read one author I liked, the library would offer more by the same author. If I went to one shelf for one book, I’d instantly see other books on the same subject. If one book mentioned another book, chances are, the library would have that book too. If I didn’t know what I wanted and only wanted to read something new, I could wander down any aisle, and something would randomly catch my eye. Libraries offered spontaneous adventures, the opportunity to just happen upon new knowledge, and support for any new interest or preference I happened to develop.
They offered the answers I needed for school: to complete homework assignments, essays, research papers.
They were equal opportunity environments. I felt welcomed, invited, beckoned—even respected for merely entering—no matter in what city or country or what size library, no matter my native language, race, sex, gender-affiliation, or even my age.
They were places a kid could wander in and roam around without an adult looking over their shoulder, without anyone thinking the child needed to be “watched” around the things the building contained.
Eventually, they offered access to the world wide web—and for free!
And now, libraries still offer those things, but I don’t need them to. There are other places I can go: easier places, more convenient places, faster and more efficient places, even, on occasion, more fun places. This day in age, as libraries are increasingly questioned, devalued, and disappearing, I don’t need them for any of the reasons I once did, because…
There have always been other places that house and supply books: bookstores and other stores selling books, and even online distributors with seeming more-than-infinite supply.
I have money of my own. I don’t have to ask for permission to buy a book or money to buy a book. I don’t have to work on coming up with and clearly, convincingly listing the reasons why I need, deserve, and should be bought a book by my parents. I can buy any book I want, and I actually prefer to support an author I admire or appreciate by participating in their pre-order event, adding to their royalties (hopefully), or even adding to their combined sales to help their publisher/editor/agent realize that they, as an author, are still relevant and valued. If I think someone I know would like or should read a certain book, I buy that book for them too.
The internet doesn’t discriminate; it’ll let anyone buy any book… even books that may not be on the shelf in the local library or censored by a bookstore owner or banned by a country’s government.
The internet was born, providing yet-more-extensive information, and it’s all free—at the moment…. and except for the cost of internet access, in most places.
The internet is amazingly good at encouraging and supporting me following my personal interests, even as those interests change. Online distributors tell me what I would like to read next and, most of the time, I agree with them. Books, their subjects, authors, etc.—thanks to online catalogs, databases, and search engines—are now better linked than ever before. You can literally find anything you desire… even more desires.
Thank the gods! School is over.
The internet? Equal Opportunity. I might not get a glance of mutual respect or a smile when I navigate to Amazon.com as I did (or imagined I did) when I entered a library as a kid, but I do know Amazon really wants me to be there.
Is any child these days actually watched over every second they’re online??
I have money. I can pay for internet service and it’s at home, always at my fingertips.
My ability to acquire, read, and enjoy books and my endless thirst for more information, now? Endless, infinite, exhilarating. Able to be fully satiated. I just don’t need libraries.
And until I read Neil Gaiman’s “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013” included in his newest (and first?) nonfiction release, The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction, I’d completely forgotten that other people do need libraries.
If anyone else on the planet needs something—for their own success, opportunity, health, happiness, education, so on and so forth—they should have it. It should be provided for them, supported, set up, protected, guarded, supplied, honored and revered, and they should be pointed in its direction just in case they don’t know where it is or how to find it or why they need it.
I think we all agree (if you don’t, I’m not even going to get into that argument with you…) that it is good, necessary, important, healthy, supportive, and a basic human right that people have access to information—for the world as a whole and each of us, as individuals. Libraries hold that information, and they provide access to yet more information, endless information (i.e., via the internet). Libraries encourage, support, and direct the obtaining—and sometimes, even the comprehension—of information.
And if someone—anyone, everyone—is supplied with something they need to stay alive, survive, be better people, progress, grow, evolve, learn to love, find happiness… we all benefit. I benefit. You benefit. That weird girl down the street benefits, and you know you definitely want to see her improve as well.
And I’m not even touching upon literature as an art form, the benefit of learning to read (in your native language and others), or the influence experiencing one art form has on the one experiencing it, in manifold ways.
The thing is… I forgot that I’m not the only one in the world. Aside from the extremely embarrassing fact of practicing that thought process (even as I’d like to assume this is the only area in which I’ve committed such a terrible act of ignorance and self-centeredness), it is true. And I forgot. I forgot that what I have, others do not, that what I don’t need, others do. I forgot that the fun, the moment-to-moment revelation, and the pure joy and life-sustaining support and encouragement and motivation and zeal that I feel from reading, from accessing information in all forms, others can’t experience as easily or even at all.
In reading, I remembered.
How’s that for ironic? Or is it magic? ...the magic, the enlightening habit and eternal effects, of books, of information, of reading, and of libraries.
In reading Neil Gaiman’s points on the importance—the everlasting role of and necessity for—libraries, I remembered what they represented and offered me as a child when I last walked within them, among all those books, magazines, cassette tapes and CDs—even computer software—and all kinds of other forms of literature, language, information, art, and learning. In reading and seeing through another’s eyes, I realized why I haven’t revisited a library, why I didn’t feel I or others needed them (“not now, not this day in age…”). And, because of that realization, I had another: what libraries were, they still are. What libraries offered me, they offer to others; what I don’t need from them, others do.
Libraries are absolutely necessary, now and forever. They’re still a “safe place,” an indiscriminating space, a whole world, another world, an infinite world, that anyone is allowed to visit, dwell in, learn from. They respect and serve children as they respect and serve adults. They offer very important, world-bettering services and content for free. “Free” means “everyone.” And everyone is important; everyone is deserving. If we provide for others, we provide for ourselves. If we help others, we help ourselves. If we open up opportunities and education for others…
Well, don’t we all want to live in that world?
(artwork from the manga series based on the Japanese light novel series, Library War, written by Hiro Arikawa and illustrated by Sukumo Adabana; one edict of the fictional Freedom of Library Law directs “When the freedom of libraries is imperiled, we librarians will work together and devote ourselves to secure the freedom” and is defended by armed library defense force soldiers)