A love letter to libraries

This is cross-posted at The Season.

Kids at library
©Loretta Humble/sxc.hu

My father was laid off when I was 11. My mom had recently quit her job to train as a teacher.

Being a worrisome child, my first fear was that we’d lose our home. Mom reassured me that wouldn’t happen. My second fear was that I wouldn’t be able to buy books anymore. Mom said, “Honey, I’ll always buy you whatever books you want.”

I’m not sure whether she underestimated my voracious appetite for stories, or how long Dad would be unemployed, but we soon started frequenting the library instead of the bookstore.

The library in our town was tiny. It didn’t have much of a young adult section, and I was always worried I’d get yelled at if I spoke out loud. It wasn’t my favorite place to be, but it was my main connection to stories that helped me escape the toughest years of my life for a few hours at a time.

Over the last year, there’s been a lot of talk in the UK—as I know there has been in the U.S. and other countries—about saving public money by closing libraries. The arguments in favor of this seem beyond daft to me. How can you quantify all that we’d lose if we lost libraries?
On Sunday, London’s Observer Magazine printed this fantastic article about all the ways libraries and librarians serve their communities. It says, “The great untold truth of libraries is that people need them not because they’re about study and solitude, but because they’re about connection.”

I see this several times a week at London’s Barbican Library, where I often spend my lunch hour writing. Part of an arts center that’s home to the London Symphony Orchestra and also has a cinema and theater, the Barbican Library is far more than the sleepy seaside library of my childhood.

In fact, watching people connect at the Barbican Library is sometimes much more interesting than the scene I’m writing. There’s often a large group of women knitting at the library. They look like they cover every age between 25 and 85. This isn’t a silent library, so they chat as they knit, and their creations are spread on the table between them.

I once saw an elderly man approach them, smiling. He said he loved seeing them there every week; it made him happy. They invited him to sit and talk for a while. Perhaps this won’t seem strange to many of you, but in London I find it’s very unusual for strangers to strike up a conversation with each other. It’s far safer to pretend you’re alone in this city, which can only make it a very lonely place, especially for people who don’t have jobs or families.

The article recognizes how vital stories—especially happy stories and romances—are for people whose lives are difficult. One of the librarians talks about taking a mobile library to deprived areas of London, and chatting with people about what kind of romance novels they liked. He said, “Those books are almost a form of medication; I reckon we save the NHS [National Health Service] a fortune in antidepressants.”

Last week I was in Sarajevo. I walked past the old Sarajevo library, which was shelled during the Balkans conflict. Over a million books were burnt to ash, but much more than that was lost when the library was destroyed.

Nearly 20 years later, the building is covered in scaffolding. I don’t know what library services Sarajevans have access to now, but I discovered this New York Times article from 1996, less than a year after the end of the siege. It contains a quote from Enes Kujundzic, the library’s director, which seems applicable to countries emerging from all kinds of catastrophes—whether war or economic depression.

Responding to people who thought the country had bigger priorities for reconstruction, he said, “People forget that this country can’t be rebuilt without resources of science and technology. People say you are a cultural institution. I say we’re also an educational and scientific institution that has to help this country compete.”

And how many of us live in countries that no longer want to compete?

What do libraries mean to you? What connections have they helped you make—whether they connected you with people, new authors, or ideas? With so much information moving online, do you think libraries are a waste of public money, or are they still as vital for communities as they’ve ever been?


    1. Terry, I haven’t heard this, but if you mean that a publisher wants to “pulp” their library e-books so libraries have to buy another copy, I think it’s a shocking shame. Not only is it completely against the values I hold, but it seems like bad business sense. I can’t tell you how many authors I’ve come to love after checking out one of their books, and I go on to buy loads more. I’m reluctant to spend money on authors I haven’t tried, or at least had strongly recommended by people I trust. With library books, there’s no risk, which makes me much more eager to buy future books if I like the one I borrowed. Making it harder for libraries to get those books in the first place seems counter-productive.

      What do you think?

      1. I think it’s a cop out, a way to say, “hey, we support e-books” BUT we want to make more money so we’re going to make libraries re-buy them. (Of course as an author, sales are good, but this is ridiculous — and how many times can a print book be checked out before it’s too worn to keep in the system. I think more than 26)

  1. i love the knitting women! i’ve never come across a non-silent library, that would be great! except that i live in Los Angeles, where no one talks to anyone unless they think you’re someone. with so many people here, it can be a very lonely place.

    libraries have long been my sanctuary. i remember the summer reading clubs when i was little, where we got stickers for every 10 books we finished. they cut me off of stickers because they said i read too many books! in high school, i would spend my lunch hours in the library, hidden in a cubicle writing. and now i go all the time. sometimes just to check out books, other times with a bag loaded with writing utensils, reference books, my journals, you name it. i can spend hours there, even just browsing the shelves. i’ll grab a book that speaks to me and start reading.

    i don’t know what i’d do without one!

    1. I used to live in LA, Kristen, and there were times when it was a very difficult place. I’m sorry the librarian cut off your sticker supply! That must’ve been an impressive number of books!

  2. Growing up, libraries mean hope to me. It wasn’t just the stories, although seeing the myriad possibilities for life was in important part of my pushing through the suffering. It was about the access to information, if I read something in a story that made me go, “What causes that?” It was about the librarians greeting us cheerfully and chatting with us as if we weren’t dirty and poor. It was about being surrounded by people in a hub of life, and knowing that someday we’d be grown-ups intertwined with the library’s own life.

    I go to the library down the street a couple of times a month with my son. He’s only 19 months old now, so it’s unlikely he recalls too much about it. He loves book, but it’s my hope libraries–and the connectedness they foster–will be an important part of his life as he grows older.

    1. Deb, thank you for sharing this. And your son may not specifically remember these library visits when he’s older, but I bet the lessons he learns in them about the value of ideas and sharing will stay with him.

  3. Great post. I, too, loved libraries as a child. I live in London but I have never been to the Barbican Library, though I have been to the theatre there. The knitting women sound great. Did you ever hear of or see the Poetry Society’s knitted poem? It goes on display sometimes. I knitted two squares for it – that’s my knitting/literary claim to fame and I always thought that was cool. But knitting and chatting in a library sounds even better.

    And have you read People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks about the Sarajevo Haggadah? I read it a few months ago. I can’t imagine all those books burning.

  4. Libraries were always a second home for me growing up; as soon as I could read I was nosing around the school library. The librarian showed me how to use the card catalog just so I would stop pestering her, I think.

    I’ve given lots of presentations in my local library, a local branch that is one room and the busiest one in Oakland.

  5. The library was my only doorway to the world outside my small Southern town. The books I read didn’t reflect the prejudice common in my home.
    The library was my only link to people who did great things. I could escape the mediocre existence those in my town seemed to embrace.
    The library was my dream maker. Without the library, I’m not sure I would have dreamed at all.


  6. I grew up in a very small town and the library was in walking distance. I’d spend all summer there. My love started there, but was solidified when I was stationed in S. Korea. I was placed on a very, very small post in the mountains, but they had a library. Most of the authors I adore today, I found in that little library. It was well stocked and a life saver for someone who was in a country where she didn’t know the language.

    I take my daughter all the time, of course she runs straight for the computers. It makes me a little sad, but I think that is the direction we are headed.

    Thanks for posting about this subject!


  7. To those who believe “on-line” is the be all, end all: You can’t knit online. And if you’ve lost your job, online very quickly gets cut from your budget. Our local library has about 25 computer stations, as well as study areas, children’s play area, and of course books books and more books. Exactly as it should be. I see more teenagers there than any other age group. Anyone want to toss the teenagers out and see what other mischief they can find? I think not.

    This was a beautifully written piece!!

  8. The library is not only important to me for all the usual reasons, but as a kid, I worked in the library. I couldn’t wait reach fourth grade so I could volunteer one day a week (that is all we were allowed) after school in my local library. I learned to file cards, shelve books, and I learned my first real work ethic, all at the library. And I was only nine years old. That’s not all I learned. How about getting alone with people of all ages, helping people, manners, sharing, etc. Sure I was taught these things at home and at school but at the library, was shown how they all worked and fit together.

    Bad enough we are losing our bookstores with thier cafes, we can’t lose the libraries, too.

  9. Yes, it makes me sad to see libraries’ worth be dismissed so easily. I think libraries are *more* important now that everything is online. With the OverDrive option (ebooks through libraries) and library subscriptions to databases and programs (like Rosetta Stone), they have more to offer – and we have more to lose if we don’t have them.

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