By Jay Walljasper
Just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s any less insightful: You really can see the whole the world at your local library. My passion for traveling began in the basement of the Urbana (Illinois) Free Library, right at the children’s check-out desk where they displayed a series of books about the fifty states. I borrowed them all and vowed to visit every single state in the union. (I’ve only four to go: Delaware, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii.)
At age 12, my horizons expanded dramatically when I graduated upstairs to the main library. Most Saturday mornings I would ride my bike there and make explorations of the uncharted territory of the stacks, full of marvels about faraway places, fascinating people and new ideas. I would then make my way to the racks of newspapers in the reading room and sit down with the Manchester Guardian, initially curious about the tissue paper it was printed on (cheaper for overseas mail delivery) and later intrigued by the exotic world on the other side of the Atlantic chronicled in its pages.
Of course, now the Guardian is on-line, (and regularly quoted by a surprising number of Americans) and the internet offers more travel information about more places in the world than I could ever imagine as a kid. With just a couple clicks on the keyboard, I can view hundreds of photos of Kyoto, Kiev and Kalamazoo–including inside looks at a hotel room I might consider booking for future vacations. At the same time, children’s books about every subject under the sun are now available in the lavish new kids’ rooms of bookstores, which evoke the feel and function of libraries with story hours and tiny chairs in bright colors.
So who needs libraries? Aren’t they relics of a pleasant but no longer useful past just like the corner soda fountain and walk-in phone booths?
Not at all! First, a surprising number of Americans don’t have convenient access to the internet, nor the budget to purchase every book that happens to interest them and their children. In my own case, even with a dedicated DSL line and a huge personal library thanks to many years’ work as a book reviewer, I can still frequently be found at the local library.
I go there to do research–the best-stocked Barnes & Nobles superstores and even the internet don’t have everything you need to know. Not by a long shot. And I also go to the library simply because it is a great place to hang out, bump into friends and check out the bulletin board full of info on what’s happening around the neighborhood. Through the years I’ve met any number of interesting people–including long ago a steady girlfriend–across a table full of books. (I once broke up with a girlfriend on the steps of the library, too–but it was a different girl and a different library.)
There’s one more important reason I go to the library. As a writer, I find that libraries offer the perfect combination of solitude and stimulation to get my work done. I’ve met people in many other fields who use libraries the same way, almost like a booster rocket for their creativity. The quiet of a reading room makes it possible to think deeply and widely about any subject at hand–a precious chance for reflection that seldom arises in the office, at home or anywhere else in our increasingly hustle-bustle world.
But when my imaginative powers begin to droop, as they inevitably do after an hour or three of concentrated work, I can walk around and get quickly recharged. It might be a quiet conversation with a librarian or fellow patron, but I may also turn to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Carl Sandburg or Bill Bryson for a few words of inspiration.
The longest sustained period of hanging out in libraries in my life was not in college but during the years I was editor of Utne Reader. I joined the nationally-recognized magazine in the early days when the tiny staff was crammed into an even tinier office where every phone conversation was a communal experience. And don’t ask about the bathroom, barely concealed behind a folding partition right next to my desk. Editing and writing articles was almost impossible for me in such an environment, so I fled for a few hours each day to the nearby Linden Hills branch of the Minneapolis Public Library. That became my other “office,” and for years I edited nearly every word in the magazine right there at one of the tables, cheered on by a distinguished crowd of journalists, essayists, novelists and other authors sitting on the shelves all around me.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Linden Hills library and its welcoming staff for the development of my own professional career and the success of the magazine. It was a proud moment for me to be asked to speak at a neighborhood celebration of the library’s 60-year history.
But it looked like the library would never see 75. A budget crisis, brought on in large part by cuts in state aid, threatened to swamp the Minneapolis Library system. The lovely, popular Linden Hills Library ended up on a list of those be shut down. An outpouring of community support saved it, but three other libraries, despite similar outpourings of support in their communities, are now closed and threatened with a permanent lights out.
What a horrible loss. Some kids may never get the chance to be amazed about all the people, places, and things in the world the way I was. Some young couples may never meet. Some young writers and creative people in every field may miss out on a spot for inspiration and reflection. And, saddest of all, these neighborhoods could lose an important meeting ground where people can come together as neighbors and friends.