It seems like a cliche now, but for what feels like a generation we've been living with the idea that libraries are dead. The idea of a library, for many of us, is of a kind of museum full of things that might be curiosities. But like many brick-and-mortar institutions of old, we don't need what's inside. This point of view is understandable, but it is a huge mistake. Because libraries are not falling behind our digital way of thinking––they were way ahead of all of us in realizing how we would wish information to be available and how we wanted to engage it. Think about it: Libraries collect all kinds of information, all kinds of media, and all kinds of tools into one place and invite you in so that all of it is as close as possible. It is like standing in a three dimensional Wikipedia page, with hyperlinks in one magazine drawing you to the CD collection over here, or the audiobook section over there. And, as if that audacious idea weren't amazing enough, when it was conceived in America in the 1700's, the whole idea is that this place would be free to use. So not only could you stand in place with as much information at your fingertips as possible, but the idea was that you could then bring it home to engage it for free. All you had to do was promise to bring it back for the well-being of other people.
So let's put aside our sense of media mastery for a moment a realize a few things that should make us deeply appreciate our public libraries.
First, they're free. Free. Without cost. They are open to anyone. And its free. In our world with all of its crazy inequalities, we have inherited an institution that is based on the indefatigable assumption that information should be available to everyone. If you want to see what a truly democratic impact in the world looks like, the closest example is your public library.
Second, libraries are not simply about books. If you, like me, grew up with parents who never let you go to Blockbuster, you probably know very well that libraries have music and movies as well. But the best libraries have items available that run the absolute gamut. Libraries offer all kinds of things that speak to people with all kinds of interests. From libraries in this country you can borrow puppets, molded cake pans, power tools, libraries of musical scores, Halloween costumes, musical instruments, board games, seeds, and even therapy dogs. Maybe your local library doesn't offer all of these items, but you'd be surprised what you can find. And there is a special feeling of self-satisfaction walking home from your library with a bundt cake pan in the shape of a cathedral that goes for $79.99 at Williams Sonoma.
Third, libraries are ideal maker spaces. Often they have private rooms that can be reserved. They have free internet access. Some of them have expensive technology and tools available, like specialized software, 3D printers, recording and even photography equipment. They lend themselves to collaborative work among engaged partners.
Fourth, libraries are essential resources for “adulting” well. And lets face it, we all need help dealing with the realities of the world. It's the second week of April––have you done your taxes? The library has every form you need and resources to file even if you have little or no money to do so. Are you getting divorced? The library has all of the paperwork required to do so on your own. Do you need to file for unemployment? Frequently, libraries have resources to help you do this even with oversight from government certified professionals. If you are feeling overwhelmed by something having to do with the government, insurance, taxes or other legal matters, chances are that there are resources to help you at your local library.
Fifth, libraries are community centers that allow you to plug into all kinds of groups and constituencies. Just a few weeks ago, I was able to see Dave Eggers and Mokhtar Alkhanshali at a book reading sponsored by a library. The next week in the same library system, there was a panel that focused on urban housing and related policy issues. The week after that, there was a town hall meeting to discuss recent real estate developments. Now, I'm not saying you have to care about all of those things, but they point is that libraries are where lots of important stuff happens. Which leads us to…
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, real people are at the library. It is always full of actual people from your actual community. And not to self-diagnose our digital habits, but we certainly aren't getting BETTER about connecting with one another in the real world. Our wilting, public-averse-ness has become memetic in our culture. And libraries are an absolute and stalwart institution that stands against those habits. Libraries have book clubs, community groups, youth mentoring programs and hundreds of opportunities to get to know people. And in an increasingly divided world, that is a huge win for the forces of goodness.
April is “National Library Month.” As with most national “months,” this one can fly past us without us even lifting our eyes from our screens. But if ever there was a time to take a second and appreciate one of the things that you support that is 100% good. Go and get a library card. Pick up a brochure for Summer programs. Find a venue to volunteer. Pick up something expensive that you want to read or hear without paying for it OR pirating it online––a stack of graphic novels, a few audiobooks, or the newest hardback. Or, even better, do something that is very hard to do in digital spaces––get lost wandering, physically lost in a savannah of knowledge and media. Get surprised by something unexpected. Find something on accident. Learn something on purpose.
And be thankful that the libraries are still here.