The Public Library: All About the Books?

Posted: June 23, 2006 in Public Libraries

Before I came to work at a public library I considered its primary function as a storehouse for the more mainstream sorts of books I didn’t have the money to purchase, but wanted to read. The system wasn’t the ideal source for the more obscure texts I enjoyed reading, as not everyone seems as fixated on the 18th and 19th centuries as I am, but it was often surprisingly reliable for everything else.

For the obscure stuff I’ve always turned to the plethora of used booksellers on the internet, such as the huge resource Abebooks.com, or, that OTHER source I half hesitate to mention, Amazon.com. Amazon.com is THAT WHICH MUST NOT BE NAMED to small booksellers, but I can’t feel traitorous about mentioning it because you’d have to have been living under a rock for the past decade not to have heard of it before. Not exactly breaking news.

I also thought of the library as a place to escape to, when the noise levels at home made my hair stand on end. There are quiet nooks in a library, comfortable chairs, and thousands and thousands of my favorite things on earth.

Books.

The library was the place I brought my children, both to check out books on whatever their current pet interests were and also to borrow videos to keep them occupied long enough for me to do some laundry, take a shower and/or nap, or just enjoy half an hour of QUIET. A half hour trip to the library bought me, the frazzled mother of three children two years apart or less in age, a whole lot of entertainment value (and more than a little “sanity time”). They loved the library. The only downside was their penchant for checking out the same videos, over and over (and over), such as the blissfully brief period when my daughter became fixated by Pippi Longstocking. No offense against Pippi in theory, but there’s one particular video so completely horrible in sound quality (think nails on chalkboard) I still shudder at the thought of it.

So, of course, my daughter loved it.

After a while another benefit became obvious. Not only did the library save me the money of purchasing all of these books (a not insubstantial sum), but it also saved me the storage space of keeping them after I’d read them. That may not seem that consequential to many, but as a former bookseller my house at one time nearly burst at the seams with books. Now my collection is down to somewhere around 3,000 volumes (at least half of which are in storage, in boxes in the crawl space portion of my basement), which is down at least 50% from its heyday.

N.B.: Roughly half of my collection is catalogued online, at LibraryThing.com. LibraryThing is a sort of playground for those of us who like playing librarian in our spare time, I guess you’d say. If you’re looking for a great way to spend all your spare time (if eight hours a day spent cataloguing aren’t enough for you) I highly recommend it.

Recently I enjoyed a short dialogue with author Susan Hill (whose blog, by the way, is brilliant) on the subject of the role of the public library. Ms. Hill, author of such wonderfully creepy books as The Woman in Black, doesn’t actively patronize her local library. Why? Well, because she has the money to purchase the books she wants and doesn’t care to borrow them from a public institution. When I told her my role in the library consisted largely in bringing the arts to the community she assured me she applauded that high notion, but the real purpose of the library should be THE BOOKS.

I’ll grant her that. To me the library has always been mostly about the books, but having worked in the library for the past several months I’m beginning to see that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The library should revolve around its collection, no doubt, but there are more community needs out there that need to be supported, and the library is an ideal forum for that.

Did I really just say that? Me, the book woman? Alright, I did, and now I have witnesses. The library is funded by the public to serve the needs of the public. I have the tax bill to prove it, too.

Hopefully the reading public will make much use of their public libraries, but it’s those non-readers, unlikely to stop by to check out a book, we also need to snag. After all, once we get them in the door what will they see?

The BOOKS.

Maybe it can be all about the books, after all.

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