Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What's a library for?

My brother, visiting me from New Hampshire last year, was surprised to see all the cars in the Brown Library parking lot as we drove in.  "I would think most people didn't need to use a library much any more," he commented. "We all have computers at home and ipads and smart phones in our pockets.  We can look up anything we want from there."
"Come on in," I told him.  "I'll give you a tour.  You'll really be surprised, then."
There are a lot of people who think the way Tom does.  They forget that the role of a library isn't only books.  A town library is a center for a whole community, making sure it has the resources each of its citizens needs to live, work, and learn.  Those needs are as many and varied as the people who make up a community.  But really, they can be boiled down to one:  the need to know.
A town is only as in-the-know as its people are.  All its people:  rich or poor, higher or basically educated; whatever their family, culture and background, its citizens make a town progressive.  Neighborhoods grow, jobs appear, good schools are built, the arts and recreation flourish, the job applicant pool becomes smarter--all of us become smarter and healthier at living.
I have a favorite saying, attributed to one of our smarter statesmen:  If you think keeping libraries is expensive, try the cost of living in an ignorant country.
But that's just words.  My brother is a businessman. Business for him is seven days a week for long hours.  He feeds people breakfast and lunch--good food, good customers, good service in an easy, friendly atmosphere.  In his world, all that is connected by a single keystroke:  the energy of himself and his family who works equally hard with him.  But the needs of his customers aren't all the same--some arrive at the door at 6 am for a few cups of coffee and a roll before work.  A little later, their friends walk in to make contact and order their first meal of the day--it's a local morning ritual--choosing from a menu of fifteen or twenty items from oatmeal to eggs to pancakes.  Later on, some travelers will roll in from off the road on their way to hike or ski.  They want fancier stuff; they're on vacation, after all.  It isn't long to lunch, either, and that's a whole new crowd with different appetites.  After nearly thirty years, his restaurant has learned how to serve them all, keeping the tried-and-true, local comfort foods, but also adding new fare, healthier or trendier. 
So as we walked into the library, I began to point out to him what people were actually doing there, corner to corner.  The children's section to the right had a story hour going on for preschoolers whose parents brought them in to listen to Terry animate with puppets an adventurous tale.  Sure, their parents could read to them at home, but there was more fun doing it among friends. And they could take new books home.  A few children were working on the special children's computers, learning letters and numbers, making play of reading and researching. In front of us at the circulation desk were a line of people bringing back books and CDs or DVDs, and checking out new ones--edging in were two or three choosing from the new-book shelf.  Yes, they still read books with covers and pages; they can choose books that are favorites, books with large print, books on tape or CD, old books with beautiful illustrations.  They might own an e-reader or they might not--the library does e-books, too, free. (Did you know you could take classes in how to use an e-reader here, too?)
The fact that every carrel of computers were in use was another clue--this was where people came to check mail, apply for jobs, go to online classes, learn a language, look up what they need to know to fix plumbing or build a table or knit a sweater or grow a garden, use a digital camera, catch up with people far and near.  Home wasn't where they were hooked up; perhaps they couldn't afford it, perhaps they just needed help connecting, perhaps they were visiting from elsewhere and needed the wireless.  For so many of us, the library is the place to go to know and to keep up with the world wherever we are.
Beyond them were people reading the newspapers and magazines, researching genealogy in the History Room, choosing films and music to borrow, nesting in the young-adult section, and around the corner, looking for mysteries and fiction.  Someone in the tutoring room was tutoring a student.  Upstairs in the community room, some group was meeting.
And down in the offices, the library director and her staff were keeping it all happening, the same way my brother does in his kitchen.  It's not a large staff, but they work hard and manage to keep everyone in the community, whatever their resources, income, or connectedness, equally able to access the table and the necessary nourishment of the mind.
"Wow," my brother said. Yes, indeed. 
In case you, too, are forgetting about the real value of a library, take your own tour of Brown Library any day of the week and catch up on the learning and information center of Washington and Beaufort County.
Then become a Friend of the Brown Library--it costs very little for each of us, but it means an enormous amount to everyone we live among.  Being a Friend is a very community thing to do.

No comments:

Post a Comment