Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Happy National Library Week 2010

The American Library Association's theme for the 2010 National Library Week, April 11-17: "Communities thrive @ your library." Hokey? Yes. True? Yes. Underemphasized? Oh, yes.

I wrote my college thesis on the Free Library of Philadelphia, a documentary for which I spent the whole of second semester senior year hanging out at the West Philly branch trying to sew myself into the seams of the place. I made friends with the librarians, the part-time shelvers, a few regulars like homeless Lionel Smith who I took to McDonalds across the street for a Filet-o-Fish. I've always been a bookworm and, more relevant, a library lover. I got a blue and white plastic library card in elementary school and actually used it. Even at my grandmother's beach house in Delaware my parents would take me to the local library to check out books. There's a beautiful rawness to used books, a rich backlog of other pairs of hands that have touched the same pages you're touching. Like tire tracks on a dirt road. I keep an envelope of objects I find in library books: a bandaid in its creased wrapper, a mini yellow Post-It scrawled with a phone number, a quarter-sheet cardstock flyer for a long-ago concert. (There's a Flickr feed "Library Finds" with the same objective.) I miss the days when the inside of library books' back covers bore the date stamps of past readers, a haphazard spooling column of blue ink recording in permanence each temporary possession of the volume.

But although today's libraries have hitched themselves to the technology bandwagon alongside every other sector of the book industry (Skokie, Illinois librarian Toby Greenwalt writes in the Huffington Post of libraries' downloadable collections, text message librarian correspondence, and mobile-optimized sites) the charm and merit and, most importantly, necessity of these institutions has not lessened. The architectural beauty of libraries symbolizes their magnitude (see the Huffington Post's slideshow of "America's Most Amazing Libraries" in honor of National Library Week, and the below video of Louis Kahn's New Hampshire library):

Source: Alex Roman on Vimeo.

Of course, aesthetics aside, libraries offer a social nerve center for a community just as the ALA's motto insists. Some character sketches from my time spent at the Walnut West branch illustrate libraries' role as neighborhood concourse. I met kids like 17-year-old Ryan Baginski, in his cocked white ball cap and struggling fuzz of upper lip hair, who goes to Walnut West three times a week to do schoolwork like his Martin Luther King, Jr. research project; the high school library closes when classes let out, and Ryan's family can't afford a computer or encyclopedia set. The flyers in the library lobby- “Talk About It: Youth Violence”- indicate the significance of providing a safe space for potentially troubled youth like Ryan. I met strapped-for-cash hobbyists like construction worker and SAT tutor 26-year-old Zac Brooks, trying to indulge his passion for graphic design when he can't afford lavish coffee table art books from Barnes & Noble. I met foreigners trying to cobble together some self-taught English so they can apply for jobs. I met toddlers giggling and bouncing like popcorn during the daily story hour, the only reading time they'll get with their parents- or single parent- working triple shifts.

The positive influence Philadelphia's library system fosters is obvious, but so can libraries hold such power in areas that aren't downtrodden. They provide boundless archives of photographs (see the New York Public Library's photostream on Flickr), an invaluable human resource that shatters the bun-and-glasses stereotype (see Flavorwire's list of the 10 Best Songs About Libraries and Librarians and, on a more serious note, The New Yorker's and Slate's interviews with Marilyn Johnson, author of the librarian-centric This Book Is Overdue!), and a wellspring of reading material that is cost-free.

Jamie LaRue outlines on MyLiblog seven arguments for building new libaries, in an age when cities short on funding are shutting them down. His Argument #1 reads, "We are the business that (at least in most communities) never goes out of business." Here's hoping.

"Leaves spin up into coilings and subside.
This windy much-ado, arising
The desert could well serve as epitaph
For Alexandria, Rome,
Pergamum --

For all the ancient libaries whose collections
vanished in a mammoth wordless void.
And though I have the evening clouds'
Thoughts of the art and science thus destroyed
Leave me a
little empty and unnerved.
The consolation? Some things were preserved,
Technology now limits what is lost,
And learning, as it's presently
Is safe from any partial holocaust."

-from Timothy Steele's "The Library"


  1. Far from jumping on the technology "bandwagon," I see libraries offering digital tools as meeting our users at their point of need. Our website sees more than twice as many visits as our physical location, even after you've discounted any traffic from inside the building. It's my job to create some level of humanity to those people. Doing this helps to reinforce the idea that community space is just as essential in the virtual world as it is in the physical world.

    I'm not writing in to nitpick, as I certainly agree with what you're saying, and fully believe in libraries' noble mission. But I do want to offer the reminder that any efforts to embrace technology on the part of the library are not made at the expense of the more tactile pleasures you detail here.

    Thank you for the great post, and may you continue to have wonderful library experiences (in-person and online) in the years to come.

    Toby Greenwalt