As a teenager, I used to frequently walk to the public library in the much wealthier neighboring town, where I loved to browse and with my county-wide library card could even take books out.
by Josh Trapani
Publishers Weekly has a great write-up of a new Pew Survey on how Americans use libraries. Just last week I mentioned, in regard to Barnes & Noble, that one problem with the chain bookstore’s business model is that people use the stores like libraries and then purchase books online or in electronic format. But what about libraries themselves? They may be less likely to have coffee bars, and the availability of the newest bestsellers may be limited, but nobody can argue that the price isn’t right.
As a teenager, I used to frequently walk to the public library in the much wealthier neighboring town, where I loved to browse and with my county-wide library card could even take books out. Access to technology was not the draw, as this was back in the card catalog days. Instead, I liked the semi-private cubicles and the quiet atmosphere, the vanishingly small likelihood I would run into anyone I knew, and – especially – the wide selection of books.
I took out books on the Australian aborigines, on witchcraft, on astrophysics. I had no guidance and no plan and few specific objectives, but felt deep in my gut that knowledge (not of the variety taught in school, which seemed largely focused on helping us pass state exams and which I always viewed suspiciously as propaganda) was power. In retrospect, nothing I read made me especially powerful, but these books did open my mind. The books I took out were an exposure to a larger world, one I wouldn’t encounter properly until I arrived at the university (and the libraries there were a miracle to me, places I spent countless hours browsing and studying).
Even later I came across Borges’s Library of Babel, a concept that still blows my mind when I think of it.
I confess that in recent years I have come to use libraries hardly at all. I don’t have huge chunks of time for study, am no longer walking distance from a university library (I was spoiled, I admit), have the internet at my disposal for research, and can buy books to fill what time I do have without having to worry too much about the money. But the Pew study highlights how important libraries remain to communities. They may not be glamorous, but they are vital, and we would be worse off as a society without them … or if, in an environment where public goods are so threatened, they were degraded beyond recognition by budget cuts and misplaced priorities.
Do you use libraries? How often and for what? Did the Pew study resonate with you? Let me know in the comments below.