In Praise of Public Libraries

By Sandra Beasley on 1.05.10

Not long ago, I took part in a fundraiser for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1895, this family of public libraries serves 2.6 million visitors each year at nineteen locations throughout the city. But a 1.5-million-dollar deficit for 2010 has resulted in orders to close four branches, in neighborhoods already “underserved” at best, and merge two others. Hours of operation will be shortened by almost 30 percent. Thirty staff positions will be cut.


Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Main Branch. Photo by JanetandPhil on Flickr.

When was the last time you went to the library? Too often, writers outside academia (myself included) fall out of the borrowing habit. We fetishize book-buying as a variation on the Golden Rule, i.e., Pay unto others as you would have them pay unto you. Whether it’s a silky French-flapped chapbook from Tupelo Press or a hardback collected Bob Hass or a hand-sewn booklet hocked after the open mic, we offer money as a gesture of both financial and symbolic support. We get the book signed, hoping the author writes something quirky and personal, determined to make our copy as irreplaceable as possible.

In contrast, libraries treat today’s books as eminently replaceable. They are vessels to be denuded of their dustcovers, Dewey-decimaled on their spines, worn out, replaced, worn out again. Yet the book lover in me, returning to the library for the first time in many years, still feels at home. Fields of brown, nubby carpet, the sweet must of accumulated paper, all lit by a fluorescent sun. Why has it been so long?

Fifty: the magic number. Fifty: one stack under each arm, one stack in each hand, and one stack teetering on the tray of my extended forearms, edged carefully onto the checkout counter. Fifty: the maximum quantity of books that could be checked out from the Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library circa 1990.

Every writer begins as a reader, and every reader benefits from the code of readership learned in public libraries. These lessons are found not on the page—or in the page’s electronic equivalent—but in the experience of sharing shelves in a public space.

For starters: where else do you learn to pick a title using the rule of thumb?

I mean actual thumbs, the thumbs of readers who came before you. In libraries we recognize the judgment of touch; the best books are usually in the shabbiest shape. Every dog-eared corner marks a moment worth returning to. Every splotch of soy sauce is a medal of honor. Every creased binding proves hours spent using one hand to Xerox, or iron, or whatever the day required, while clutching in the other hand a story that could not be put down. When I first began browsing my way through the science fiction stacks, I didn’t choose books that looked like pristine runway models. I chose the grizzled field veterans. That’s how I came to Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Arthur C. Clarke.

Would I have found them at Borders? I don’t think so. In stores you stand before a sea of untouched editions. You drift toward volumes with striking designs, perfect trim sizes, showy end-of-aisle displays; that’s the tidal pull of good marketing. There’s nothing to judge by but cover after cover. I once picked up Fahrenheit 451 in a store, only to put it down again. The book was too small and tightly bound, the ink too fresh and smelly. The plot looked interesting, but lots of plots look interesting. The copy lacked the magnetism of a library’s dozen broken-in paperbacks, each loved into near oblivion.

What if I’d bought it anyway? Well, a confession: Fahrenheit 451 might have become just one more in my pile of unread books. This brings me to my second point. You know the books I’m talking about: the critical darling that tops so many end-of-year lists you have to buy it; the coffee-table book that’s as much sculpture as script; the beach read that you never quite choose over shut-eye on the sand; the Amazon.com impulse buy that pushes your bill just high enough to earn free shipping on the Cuisinart.

Consider this my equivalent of a field-to-table eating philosophy: I believe selecting a book should flow, seamlessly, into reading it. Once you sever the act of acquisition from the act of consumption, you’ve ruined the integrity of the product. A book that goes unread is a corpse of paper. Authors, of all people, should know better. Yet we’re often the worst perpetrators of bibliocide.

Library users observe the natural order. The system’s defining characteristic, the due date, is as compelling as it is simple. Purchasing a book feels like an end; checking one out is a beginning, a firing of the starter pistol from which we race to finish in the time allotted. I remember days when I didn’t even make it out the front doors of Tysons-Pimmit Regional before curling up in a beanbag chair, in the kids’ nook between the windows and the guinea pig cage, and turning to page one.

I miss reading with that kind of urgency. I miss taking responsibility for the decision to not read a book, rather than slip-sliding into the excuse of “one of these days,” days that soon add up to months. There’s a reason why people return overdue library books decades after the fact. The consequence lingers. The decision should matter.

In walking away from the checkout counter with a book, we have one more unique lesson waiting for us. For many, this proves to be our first engagement with civic duty. A library card is a social pact; something of value, placed in your hands based on no more than a legal address and a baseline of trust.

A book is not a Wikipedia article that can be sampled without impact. Books on loan are organic bodies, vulnerable, that must be kept safe in return for the privilege of access. If you prick it, does it not bleed? If you drop it in the tub, does it not swell? If you leave it at the bus stop, is it not gone for good? As a matter of survival instinct, every child grows up with an inherent sense of Yours versus Mine. Not every child develops a sense of Ours. For many, public libraries are what makes the difference.

When The TypewriterGirls asked me not only to read but to speak in support of the Carnegie Library system, my first worry was that I’d have nothing to say. My second worry was that I wouldn’t shut up in time for a couple of poems. My best testimony was not verbal but physical. On stage, I opened my wallet and there—under the insurance cards, under the Exxon card, years after I’d changed my legal residence to DC—was my tattered, emerald-green Fairfax County Public Library card. Still.

“It’s simpler to call myself a poet of Washington,” I told the audience. “And true, in some ways. But I will always be a northern Virginia girl. Because the place that claims your allegiance, the place you call your hometown, is where your dreams took root. Where someone said, You can do this. We can give you the tools to do this. And for me, that was in the stacks of the Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library.”

I come to praise. I also come to rally. It’s too easy to marginalize, in this digital and penny-pinched age, the crucial skills cultivated by libraries. They are not antiquated constructs; they are vital resources. Card-carrying readers of the world, unite. Card-carrying writers of the world, unite. Our public libraries need us—and we still need them.

topics: Columnists

1 Comment

Jessie Carty said on 1.06.10 at 4:37pm:

I don’t use the library nearly as much as I should because I do love to support my fellow writers by buying their books but there is something to be said for the physical space of the library. I was that same kid who just loved to see if she could find something she had not read yet.

Perhaps, even if we don’t use the library as much as we used to, we could become patrons by giving donations of money, time and/or books!