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Libraries Make Our Lives Larger

This week is National Library Week. I'm glad such a thing exists, considering all that our president has done to try to de-fund libraries (did you know that every single budget he's created has tried to take away the funding for the IMLS, which is the primary source of money for libraries and museums? While Congress isn't always known for doing the right thing, at least they've made sure to continue to support libraries, but a president who doesn’t think libraries are worthwhile is not something I’d ever believe would exist.)

 

I didn't set out to become a librarian. I got a degree in English because while science was interesting enough, I'm not really brilliant at it, and while I can get along in math OK it's not pleasant, but learning about books, words, writing, poetry, fiction, literary theory, grammar, and everything else that goes along with an English degree felt like the only reason to go to school. (I wish I had taken more history classes, though.) There've been several people in my life who have told me that I "just" got a degree in English, or that while, sure, I did graduate from college, it's only in English. Other people have told me that while science, math, and/or technology degrees are difficult, and require a certain type of mind and thinking skills, an English degree requires talent.

Maybe both are true, but my English degree did help me land my job as a librarian, even if I got that degree because I wanted to be a writer. (Doesn't every bibliophile want to be a writer?) I’ve been a librarian for almost eleven years, and I confess: I still get a little thrill when someone asks me where I work and I get to say “at the library.” I love being a librarian.

I love being a librarian. And I love libraries.

But I’ve also learned that not everyone understands the importance of our communities having good libraries.

Like the old friend I bumped into once who started laughing when I told him where I work. “So you spend your days just checking in books and putting them on the shelf?”

Like a podiatrist I went to once, who, when I answered “I work at the library” when he asked me what I do, said “Wait! The library is still open? I didn’t think people used the library anymore because of Kindle books.”

Even like library patrons themselves, some of who come into the space annoyed and entitled, who complain about what we don’t have for them, or about fines and fees, because books are too graphic or too cautious, because we have R-rated movies, because we don’t have enough movies, and who quite often end their complaints with some version of “I’m a tax payer and you are wasting my money.”

And, yes, like the president not wanting to fund libraries.

Try to imagine American society without libraries. Our libraries hold our collective history, the creative visions of our (and the world’s) writers. No libraries would mean that many people would have much less access to our literary richness. Throughout our entire life, access to the library gives us access to tens of thousands of books, from board books to picture books to chapter books to novels. Dictionaries and cookbooks and poetry, memoirs and science and history. Without libraries, only the wealthy could afford access to so many different books, and so libraries are one of society’s great equalizers.

Numerous studies have shown that readers are more empathetic human beings. I am glad data supports this, because it is a thing I unequivocally believe. Through reading you become larger than your own experiences; you learn that there is more than one way of thinking about the world. You start to understand something about the trials of being human: both that your troubles are smaller than many other people’s and that you are not alone in your troubles. You get to go places you otherwise couldn’t, discover things that you didn’t learn in your high school history class. Puzzle out mysteries, weep over characters’ losses, struggle with moral dilemmas.

Books create a life that is bigger than any individual. And libraries facilitate that largess.

Even when I wasn’t a librarian, even when that career path hadn’t even entered my thoughts—even then I loved libraries. If I left the library tomorrow (which I’m not doing of course), I’d still be an advocate for libraries. They are places full of books, and stories, words and images. They are more than just books on shelves, too. They are places where people gather, find information in many different ways, make friendships, stay warm in storms. They aren’t only about books.

But for today, I’m celebrating the books that libraries give us access to. They are worthwhile for so many different reasons.

And libraries are worth whatever funding we can give them.

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