June 2003

Michael Farrelly

library rakehell

Love your library

If you really love books then why aren't you using your library?

It's a fair question to ask of a bibliophile cruising the aisles of Barnes and Noble looking for their latest fiction fix or a historical biography to cull their craving.

Sometimes it's because people view libraries as inconvenient. The library doesn't always have the book you want, sometimes it can be days or even weeks before the title you crave comes back in.

Other people complain that libraries aren't as user-friendly as a bookstore. That the capitalist impetus placed on the bookseller somehow improves the quality of service.

Another group believes that the library is somehow an arm of government and that their reading habits can be called up by some NSA supercomputer.

To these folks and other foes of libraries I'll happily play St. George. Sans the ties to the Anglican mythology.

First of all, most public libraries can get you any kind of material. Pause and reflect on that for a second. A hundred years ago manned flight was something being noodled with in Kitty Hawk and if you weren't well-healed sort of gent striding about town you could barely access the "Classics" of literature let alone the full-spectrum of human intellectual accomplishment. Today, at most public libraries you can walk in and request almost any book, film or recording and get it in a short amount of time. This is not to say that every book is sitting there waiting for you. Space might be infinite but shelf space isn't. Libraries today are wired up hard-core. A librarian in Tacoma can access any number of Inter-library loan databases and find all manner of material. Need Robert Pinsky's first book of poetry? Need it in Spanish? In large print? If it was printed there is a very good chance that your library can get it for you. And usually for free.

As for service, think on this, many professional librarians have graduate degrees. When you're standing at the Books-a-Million getting the wall-eye from a kid not hip enough to work at the record store remember how educated librarians have to be. Even those without the formal education are experienced information professionals who can take a crudely phrased question and fashion it into an informed response right quick.

Now what about the library as the government's Daryl Zero, well that's just plain silly. Besides the American Library Association's current battles with the Patriot Act, librarians have historically resisted governmental attempts to use libraries to their own ends. When J. Edgar Hoover was still running the FBI in his nightgown librarians openly and quietly resisted attempts to open patron's records and report "suspicious" patrons.

You might say "My library isn't like that." Well then, you need to get involved and make it that way. The greatest open secret about libraries is that they are community institutions that you can impact directly. Library boards are often elected and welcome members of the community. Libraries often have very influential "friends of the library" associations that can affect significant change on the library. You could also take the big plunge and go from book lover to librarian, but of course that way lies madness, doesn't it?

Libraries are the only public institution where regular use not only improves your mind, body and soul but also the wellness of your community as a whole. In other words, eat your library, it's good for you.