Sunday, April 17, 2016

In Praise of the Public Library

We just finished National Library Week here in the U.S. Among the diversity of libraries in our world, it is the humble and grand public library I would like to praise today.

Some public library vignettes:

One rite of passage in my small-town kindergarten was a field trip to the public library. I remember almost nothing about that trip except for one glowing moment: signing my name, in recently-learned cursive, on my very first library card. It would take another dozen years or so for me to finally get my driver's license, and the freedom represented by being able to drive still had (still has) nothing on the freedom of being able to travel the universe of books which called to my five-year-old self that day.

Big chunks of both of my published novels (An Alien's Guide to World Domination and You, Jane) were written in the Ballard (Seattle) and Ellensburg public libraries. I love writing in public libraries because they are welcoming, warm in winter, cool in summer, quiet but not silent, and open to all.

A partial list of authors I've encountered by checking out their books from the library, then going on to buy (and give as gifts) more of their works: Michael Chabon, Mark Haddon, Susannah Clark, Neil Gaiman, Spencer Quinn, Alexander McCall Smith, Lois Lowry,  Mark Helprin.

Our public library goes far beyond providing books and movies to residents. Librarians run story times for small children, offer Spanish-English conversation clubs, digitize collections of local historical photos and documents, hold workshops on using the internet to find jobs, manage your money, maintain your privacy, use your digital readers, tablets, and other devices. There are twelve computers for public use for those who can't afford their own high-speed networks, a free wi-fi network for those of us who like to work on our own devices, and a huge table with jigsaw puzzles for folks who don't want to look at a screen.

In addition to hearing our public librarians give patrons advice on books to read, I've seen them help lost people find their destinations, offer the phone for stranded travelers, and benignly ignore the harmless homeless who just need a quiet, safe corner to catch a nap.

In fact, librarians deserve a week (or month or year) all their own. I'll end with Neil Gaiman's quote about National Library Week, which about sums it up.

Elizabeth Fountain writes novels, short stories, creative non-fiction, and lots of other stuff while sitting in her local public library. She owes much of her Ph.D. to the academic librarians who made writing her dissertation possible. You can learn more about her at her web site.