Public libraries: be still, my heart!
by rebecca butler
My family recently returned to Illinois after spending six months pulling our 20-foot camper over the mountains and to the ocean beaches of the Northwest. We gave away everything, packed our clothes, our three little daughters and our pit bull into a tiny camper and we hit the road in search of the tranquility, adventure, and spiritual experiences that are unique to the wilds of the American West.
I could write pages on the lessons we learned about living together as a family in such a tiny space; how the beauty and the vastness of the landscape changed me forever; the incredible experiences we had with complete strangers who found energy and excitement in our travels; and certainly the lessons we learned about the importance of community. In the end, it was me, the adventurous catalyst of this excursion, who missed our friends and family so much that we made a wide U-turn and headed back over the mountains towards the love and support of our community. I have always identified very deliberately as a citizen of my planet, and not of the artificial boundaries of the country I happen to have been born in, so the last thing I expected to bring home was this overwhelming sense of appreciation and gratitude for the well-oiled infrastructure of the United States.
I was grateful every time our little truck limped over the towering mountains, only able to make it because the smooth winding roads made it passable. And when we were able to make a phone call from the middle of nowhere the one time the truck couldn't quite make it, I was certainly counting our blessings. But my most surprising realization happened as I watched my daughters play with a mountain of Legos on a windy, rainy day in a cozy one-room library in Newberg, Oregon. My mind started flashing back to all of the libraries we had visited on this trip. From Illinois to Oregon to California, we found one of these little oases everywhere we looked. When our camper was buried in a freak snow storm and blasted by the coldest temperatures ever recorded in Eugene, Oregon, we dug ourselves out and found the animated, art-centric family story time at their library. When we tired of hiking through the relatively warm yet relentless rain, I spent an entire evening with all three of my daughters balanced on my lap as we worked our way through a towering stack of picture books in a tiny library on the northwest side of Portland. When we had exhausted the museums and gardens and needed a new place to run off some energy, we discovered the colorful, stimulating playground that is the children's area of the award-winning Vancouver library. And no matter what part of the country I'm in, when I need to escape the high energy of my rambunctious family, I bee-line for the nearest library coffee shop and, armed with a soy latte and a mountain of books, I lose myself in other people's wisdom and stories.
We do all of these things for free and with no strings attached. If you let that sink in for a moment, you'll realize with me what an incredible gift it is to have access to these warm, dry, comfortable spaces that are packed full of information of every kind and staffed with people who can help you navigate the stacks and find exactly what you seek. It's no wonder that over 90% of Americans consider public libraries to be important parts of their communities. What is surprising and alarming is that funding for these indispensable havens of information is being threatened in every state, and many are even facing such dire straits that they are fully dependent on volunteers to run them. In some places, library hours are so drastically reduced that many community members aren't able to access them at all. In one community in Vermont, their library is only open in the summer and then for just 2 hours per day. Even in Kansas, where their libraries are fortunate to still have a large operating budget, their state funding has been reduced by over 50% since 2004.
My family is fortunate in that, through our travels, we had internet access through our phones even in the remotest areas we travelled through. We all know how deeply ingrained computer and internet usage is in our society, and that this is a trend that is growing exponentially. It is typical for students of all ages to be required to have access to computers and internet. The unfortunate reality of the socio-economic gaps in our public schools means that, as libraries cut hours and lose funding, the economically disadvantaged students who need it most—those who are least likely to have computer access at home—are doomed to fall even farther behind their more financially advantaged peers. Homework is an immediate concern, but the farther-reaching problem is that, without computer skills, their job opportunities will be diminished. Even low-level jobs at the big box stores require internet access, as their applications can only be filled out online. Without minimizing the value of preschool story times and coffee-hour escapes into the stacks, as library funding and hours are restricted, there is a real concern for people who rely on their public libraries for these important, otherwise unavailable resources.
This economic divide is being stretched even further as libraries begin to follow the e-book trend. I certainly fall into the category of sentimental people who lament the loss of the tactile, soulful experience of reading a paper book versus an ebook, but more than that is the concern that, while ebooks are certainly more affordable for the libraries and endlessly convenient for those of us who have them, they limit information resources to people who can afford access to e-readers. Restricted access to information and literature is a quick way to further disadvantage the poorer populations in this country. Who are the decision-makers on the topic of ebooks versus paper books in libraries? What population will they ultimately be most concerned about serving? If they decide that a move towards ebooks is a trend they wish to follow, the outcome could be devastating for already disadvantaged populations.
When my family returned to the Urbana library for the first time after our trip, my 6-year-old daughter raced to the door, spun around, and said exuberantly, "It is SO good to be here! It's like we finally came back to our other home!" It's not every day that I get such a clear sign that I really did something right as a parent, but realizing that my daughter thinks of the library as a second home definitely makes my heart swell a little. Some families have not been so lucky. The state-wide summer reading programs in Texas and Maryland were recently discontinued. In 2010, the library systems in Queens shut down 14 branches and made drastic cuts in their hours. The Siskiyou county government in California is currently considering shutting down their entire county library system to compensate for budget deficits. We are facing the loss of one of our nation's most valuable resources, the safe and enriching "second homes" of millions of children just like mine.
I'm sitting now in the luxurious, sunny second floor of the Champaign Public Library, drinking a soy latte with my bags and books spread around me on the oversized table. My stack of books is so ridiculously tall I know I could never finish them all, but somehow it makes me feel secure and a little bit excited to have them all around me like this. This is a space that I value more than almost any other, a resource that reaches so far in so many directions in our community, I couldn't begin to scratch the surface of their value in this short essay. When I consider that, somewhere along the line, people all over this country prioritized free public access to billions of books and endless information resources, and I think about all of the time, energy, and money that has been so well-spent on this venture, and what it has meant to generations of people, I am awed and overwhelmed with gratitude to be part of a society that made those choices.
Here's to prioritizing access to information and educational resources for all community members; to story times and reading programs and live homework help for our youngest members; to computer access and education for everyone who needs it; and, of course, to soy lattes. Our libraries are truly, indisputably, indispensable.