Has any society reached a pinnacle higher than the public library?
Multiplex cinemas? No.
The International Space Station? Sadly no.
The UN? Well, maybe.
But the humble public library deserves to be lauded and applauded.
The library is the repository of all human knowledge. Want to learn a new language? Visit the library. Want to learn how to knit or write your will? Visit the library. Want to learn to cook better, cheaper, healthier? Visit the library. Want to escape into another world, be it one of murderers or mariners, tea shops or talking cats, ogres or orange groves? There too, the library has your back.
Any society that says “Here is an open door, come and sit inside, choose any book you like and take it home with you. I trust you to bring it back.” is a smart society. Any society that grants funding and wages and support to books, to newspapers, to computer stations, to free wifi, in fact to the idea that information should be free to all, is a society that values its people.
Libraries are places that invest in people. For practically no reward. No quarterly bonus for most books sold or internet used. They give it to us for free!
Libraries are a good place to be. A place for pupils to do homework away from chaotic homes. A place to go away from the never ending chores of a household. A place to break up the day, if you live alone like many elderly people. I love the gentle hum of the heating or air conditioning, accompanied by the soft footfall of patrons and staff, and all the little noises, rustles and coughs that tell you people are nearby but not intruding. It’s just enough background noise for me to get on with work. And if I stare off into space for a while all I’ll be staring at is books, not confused cafe patrons.
I get a sense of delight from roaming the stacks, running my eye along a neat row of book spines. It’s something an ebook reader or app cannot replace (though many public libraries offer ebook borrowing). I might pull an intriguing looking title off the shelf, read the blurb at the back, maybe open it to a random page and read a paragraph or two. If I like it I can take it home that day. For free.
In addition to books, libraries are places for like minded people to gather, to source local information and to occupy the children. Below is a list of services libraries typically offer. I highly recommend investigating your local library to see what services are on offer.
- Story time sessions for the Under-5’s and their parents foster a love of language and literature that can last a lifetime.
- Book clubs and reading groups for all ages and interests offer a place to discuss ideas and socialise.
- Puzzles and board games set out for anyone to play, which fosters a sense of shared ownership and of belonging.
- DVDs and books on tape to borrow offer an alternative to reading, when required or desired.
- School holiday and weekend activities engage children in constructive pastimes while out of school.
- Clinics with Justices of the Peace, translators, lawyers and more. Depending on your area you may have a hearing clinic pop up, a council Q&A session, employment support, support for recent immigrants, homework help, adult education or any number of offerings.
- A safe place to be. For many who live alone the day is long and lonely. The library provides a sheltered place to occupy your time without having to spend money. Job seekers can apply for work using the library wifi or computers. After school, library tables are filled with school students getting their homework done.
- Community notices. In the internet age the best way to find out local information is often still a community noticeboard. In my local library for example there are notices for guitar lessons, a local toy library, the local Playcentre, dog obedience training, stitch & bitch, subject tutoring, and local dance schools.
- Helpful staff. Library staff in my experience go above and beyond to help patrons out. Whether that’s with finding books, help using computers, researching local history, or help on a specialist subject, your librarian is a font of knowledge.
- Free wifi. Many libraries offer free wifi, accepting that unfettered access to the internet is as essential these days as books or air or sunlight. My local library even has a poster of the wifi code facing out of the window. Most evenings I see a backpacker van or RV parked outside, making use of the wifi while en route to or from the West coast.
For those of us who don’t have the budget to buy new or even second-hand books very often, the library is a vital resource. The notion that everyone deserves free access to the written word says something huge about a society. I’m grateful to live in New Zealand, which invests in it’s libraries, thus in it’s people. Libraries here are beautifully kept, well-resourced, and welcoming.
What about your local library? Do you love it? Could it be better? Or do you think I’m wrong and libraries should go the way of the dodo? (I hope you don’t!)