The Library System We Deserve?

According to this article in today’s Washington Post, budget reductions have prompted the D.C. public library system to propose cutting back its hours — including the closing of all branches on Fridays.

I wish this wasn’t a common occurence. Even in my neck of the woods — up in Montgomery County, Maryland, where we have a fairly healthy budget — our libraries aren’t open every day, either. Even more frustrating, the local library two blocks from my house is closed on Sundays. I can almost understand closing on a Tuesday, or even on Friday. But closing on weekends, when it’s easier to find the time to visit the library — and when students often need their resources the most — is teeth-gnashingly exasperating.

The thing is, Americans have a shaky relationship with their libraries. Like an aging or senile parent, we love them in concept, but don’t want to visit them. When that new David Baldacci or Stephen King or David McCullough book comes out, we don’t run for the library, we head for Barnes and Noble instead. We’d rather purchase it new in hardback and read it when we have the time, rather than read a loaner which we only have a certain amount of time to read before it’s due back.

I’ve heard plenty of reasons offered for why we don’t visit libraries as much any more. Germphobes don’t like the thought of reading a book that plenty of others have touched or (*shudder*) may actually have read in the bathroom. Others cite the inconvenience of having to return the book after a certain number of days or weeks (though some of these are no doubt the same people who have no problem returning a movie or video game to Blockbuster after three days). Researchers say the availability of materials on the internet has removed the need to run to the library for the Encyclopedia Brittanica or a newspaper from 1972. Some point out that libraries, in their rush to acquire as many copies as they can of the latest bestseller, often give short shrift to older books — making the library a great place to read books published after 1990, for example, but not much else.

There’s something to be said for all those arguments, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re all finding reasons to stay away from the library. It’s like public transportation: everyone wants government to invest in more buses and mass transit for someone else to ride. We like the idea of libraries more than the libraries themselves.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit and speak at a number of fantastic libraries up and down the Atlantic Coast — the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, the New York Society Library, the Philadelphia Library, and even my local library in Damascus, Maryland — and if there was one thing they all had in common, it was readers and librarians who were passionate about them. Unfortunately, passion alone doesn’t keep the doors open on Sundays, when I’ve got my nose pressed up against the glass front door wondering if they’ve got a copy of Ted Widmer’s Martin Van Buren so I can look something up. Our libraries need more than our passion and affection; they need our support and patronage.

If you haven’t been to a library in ages — for any number of reasons — visit one again. You’ll find it’s still the best form of entertainment around, and librarians are still some of the most helpful people on the planet, always ready to help you find anything you’re looking for — and maybe even recommend something you don’t know you’re looking for yet.

Go on. You deserve it.

2 responses to “The Library System We Deserve?

  1. I’m simply amazed that our library here in little old Kalispell, Montana has such great hours. Open six days a week, staying open until 8pm on four of those days. And I’m also glad to see that it seems to be well utilized — there is usually a capacity crowd at the internet stations, there’s always a line to check out (unless you use the self-service system), and children’s story time is so popular they had to open a second time slot.

    I don’t know why it is this way. I wish it was this way everywhere.


  2. My town’s library system is having a massive book sale this weekend. You better believe I’ll be there.