“It’s nice to see you reading a real book.” It was vacation last week, and I was sprawled on the sofa at home, lost in the harsh South Texas of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.
If you read this blog regularly or know anything about me, you know that I read a great deal. So my wife wasn’t commenting on the fact I was reading; nor was it a jab at what I usually choose (almost always books, though not often fiction). No, she was referring to the actual presence of a physical book, rather than bits and bytes on my iPad.
My children are away on splendid adventures, so Sallie and I were heading for three days at the glorious Inn Above Onion Creek near Wimberley, Texas. I was determined to detach as much as possible from school and had notions of not bringing my iPad rather than test my will power. That meant I needed to bring real books. I didn’t want to buy any. So for the first time in a long while I headed for the Dallas Public Library, the downtown central branch.
The central library is massive, eight stories of various collections and workspaces, along with special exhibits. I always prepare for such a trip by scanning my reading list, then checking the on-line catalog to see if what I want is in and where to find it. I prepare a slip of paper with my information. Only then do I head for the library and begin my search. Usually that means visiting at least three different floors and asking for help at least twice.
I went on a Thursday afternoon, and I was struck by how packed the library was with a cross-section of the population. People filled the reading areas, the work tables, the computer stations. Some were shopping in the little used bookstore. I saw people reading newspapers, magazines, books; surfing the Internet; tapping away on laptops. Many seemed engaged in serious work, with piles of materials spread out; several had briefcases on the floor by them. Yes, I suspect many were from the ranks of the homeless, who have made the library a gathering spot for many years. But they were not the majority. Plus I like they could escape the heat in such a way, one certainly better than other possible activities. I’ve never understood the complaints or efforts to deter their presence.
I found my books and went to check out, only to discover, much to my chagrin, that I still had an outstanding fine of $2.70 from my last visit. I enjoyed the solid heft of the books, the challenge of organizing the different-sized volumes to I could handle them easily. I’ve since made two more trips, and I know I will make more.
But beyond my personal love of libraries, I found myself pondering something else: what a vital role a library can play in a community. Like frontier towns that used to build an opera house early on to signal their sense of culture, with its library a city signals how much it values the intellectual, individually and collectively. In some way, while being a repository for our pasts, they suggest a faith in our learning to propel us forward. There is something powerful about sharing those valuable resources. So I was sad on one of my visits to see a table set up by the library entrance, with volunteers explaining how cuts have affected the library and asking people to sign a petition.
I also found myself wondering about schools that have eliminated their libraries or have cut them way back. What message are they sending? I haven’t formed a crystal clear vision of what role libraries need to play in a modern school, although I’m sure it aligns somewhat with what some schools are striving for by renaming (rebranding?) them as learning centers or some such label. Library works just fine for me. It’s a warm word, a cozy word; a word which connotes possibility and exploration. It’s a place to both lose oneself and to discover oneself. I wish I had a library in my home. I’ll always want one in my school.