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« Picking Your Fights | Main | The Lazy Person’s Reading Plan »
Thursday
Aug182005

This I Believe

If you haven’t been listening to or reading National Public Radio’s series This I Believe, do. I submitted my statement yesterday. Try writing one. It’s fun - but tough to stay within the 500 word limit!

I Believe in the Innate Goodness of Libraries

I believe in the inherent goodness of libraries – that their value is above opinion polls, research studies and empirical data.

I came to my love of libraries growing up on a small Iowa farm. The endless soybean fields that needed to be hand-weeded and the remorselessly filling hog barns that needed to be emptied were about as far removed from the oceans and mountains and adventure I yearned for as any place could possibly be. But a small Carnegie public library on the hill overlooking Main Street provided me with a route to adventure. It was the first place I headed whenever we came to town and the librarian knew me well. I still count among my finest moments when she informed me that I read every book in the mythology section. Somehow walking the beans was more bearable when it was a “Sisyphean” labor or when the hog barn was the Augean stable.

In my high school library I found new adventures as I traveled with Heinlein’s spacemen, Tolkien’s Hobbits, and Crane’s Civil War soldiers. In university libraries I found adventurous ideas in the writings of Hayakawa., Postman and McLuhan. By then I’d left the farm behind, but now I was released from the prison of blind ideologies as well. Libraries made that escape possible.

But libraries have another role as well - one I learned as a school librarian. One that a Nigerian boy named Chinedu taught me. Big for his age, talkative, and relentlessly cheerful, he drove his fifth grade teacher and classmates crazy. As a result, Chinedu was often sent to the library for a little timeout where, to be honest, he was still a pest. His silliness could be a real bother to everyone in the library, but he also liked to work. I kept on hand a Chinedu –do list of jobs he could perform. Things would go smoothly for weeks and then Chinedu would do something outrageous like dumping a cart of books just to get attention. I’d go home wondering why the library should suffer his presence.

But late one afternoon, Chinedu reminded me that libraries are not just escapes, but refuges as well. Out of the blue, he approached my desk, grinned, and in his melodious accent declared, “Ahh, Meester Johnson. Dees library. Eet is my hoom away from hoom.” And I was taught that libraries are often the only place in a school or community that is comfortable and welcoming for many people.

Like shade trees, chocolate, and summer afternoons, libraries really need no hard-reasoned defense. I can, of course, dig up research that “proves” libraries improve a community’s workforce and students’ reading skills. But then, with enough persistence, I can find research that supports any point of view.

I’m afraid I don’t use libraries as much as I once did. My impatient nature makes bookstores and the Internet increasingly appealing. But my belief in not just the value, but goodness, of libraries is stronger than ever.
_________________________
Believe in anything strongly enough to put it in words?

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Reader Comments (2)

Doug,

I found this post through your recent mention of it from a post about the "This I believe Meme" via Cathy Nelson.

In Henrico County, Virginia where I live, they have just opened two new libraries that are real treats to visit: one is two stories, it's bright, has nice chairs, and I've often thought of spending a better portion of a Saturday there, reading some of the many magazines from my own diverse set of interests.

I think libraries are trying to evolve, at least some of the public places, to remain so-called "homes away from homes." If it isn't a library bistro, or a relaxing of rules about food or talking, libraries are in fact competing with our bookstores, cybercafes, Starbucks, and other activities.

At 34 years old, I still have a nostalgic idea of what a library can be. I find it almost funny now that kids in our high school like the library - for its space, nice windows, friendly staff--and computers. Thanks for sharing what you believe!

May 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Hendron

This really got to me this afternoon. I've read it before, but just stumbled across it again right after reading news that Philadelphia is seriously considering shutting down all of it's public libraries. Didn't Ben Franklin start the first public library there? What a travesty...

September 17, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterteacherninja

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