Earlier this year, the New York Public Library revealed its $1 billion plan to update city branches and renovate its main Fifth Avenue flagship. With constant funding cuts and changing publishing mediums, many met the announcement with apprehension.
Even as a lifelong library rat, I have to ask myself, in an e-world with nearly infinite reference material and entertaining reading available to us anywhere we have a Wi-Fi connection, why go to a physical library? Why spend a billion bucks on it?
I took a trip to my local branch seeking answers. I sat at the long wooden tables. I watched kids sign up for their first libraries cards. I walked back and forth in the aisles, held book after book, and I found sandwiched on the levels and the aisles, in the stories and on the pages, a file of our lives.
In periodicals, against its yellowed box leans Life Magazine, October 1988. Its pages are taped and ridged from years of moisture. The obnoxious crinkle of pages draws all eyes on me in the quiet room. Page 32 boasts an ad for Salem cigarettes without a Surgeon General’s warning; back when they used to preach a little smoke could be good for you, and in the back I turn to an ad for the no-longer-existent Polaroid film.
Further down the shelf stands Atlantic Magazine, March 2011. The cover article reads: “Artificial Intelligence — Why Machines will Never Beat the Human Mind.” It is now 2012; just one year after, and I wonder if this is still true.
Public Records hide in the back in four-inch thick binders with clipart covers. Wide metal drawers hold maps and building blueprints. A whole wall of dilapidated Yellow Pages spans from Alabama to Wyoming — do people use phone books anymore?
On stacks and on shelves, in rows, in order, we put our ideas. We log our past and our present.
The Oxford Book of Carols — Ref 782.28 — sits next to the third edition of The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll — Ref 781.660 — so that a hundred years from now someone might still remember the lyrics to “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentleman” and recall FCC violations before Janet Jackson changed the game with her 2004 Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction.
A square coffee table book, The Motown Album, displays the greats — The Temptations, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder. “It took a blind 10-year-old named Stevland Morris to break the mold at Motown,” the book tells us.
Once-banned classics lace the young adult shelves — Slaughter-House Five and The Color Purple, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and ironically, Fahrenheit 451. Their tattered paper covers show they are checked out frequently, a sign of progress and tolerance. These stories, though controversial and constantly facing appeal, have avoided the censorship of bonfires.
The Nonfiction 200s hold Dawkins and Hitchens and The New English Bible, all contradicting each other — a single-shelf expression of the free marketplace.
I walk down an aisle where books on Ancient Rome — J937 — mirror books on Nazi Germany — 940.53 — and beg not to be forgotten. History waits in creases: The civil rights movement — 973, the women’s movement — 324.623, the abstract expressionism movement — 709. The future of our democracy is conditional on the future of our education.
I realize it is not just our country’s history sandwiched in these stacks, but also my own. Copies of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona seriessit in a row. Ramona isstill puddle-jumping and painting her lips with her mother’s red lipstick. I pick up Home Run, Amelia Bedelia and The Boxcar Children to find Amelia is still taking the rules of baseball too literally and the Alden children are still solving mysteries. Hardbacks Goodnight Moon and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie sit on lower shelves with nearby floor pillows, fraying cardboard corners show many nights of bedtime stories.
This library not only holds stories, it tells them.
A woman sits down with her husband and a baby name book, and they discuss how to spell the name “Giovanni.”
A man with a black backpack and Nikes slouches in a cubicle reading a hardback sci-fi novel. His glasses slip further to the rim of his nose with every snore.
My mind wanders. I imagine a fifth grade boy at J977.5 researching his state report on Wisconsin, or a high school freshman picking up Catcher in the Rye for the first time.
I picture a mother pulling The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook at 641.5 and the child sitting next to her scrunching her nose to the idea of boiled beets with sautéed beets for dinner, the recipe on page189.
I imagine an inquisitive child exploring: Is there a Loch Ness monster? (001.944) What is the Bermuda Triangle? (001.94) How do black holes happen? (523.8875) Why do kangaroos have pouches? (599.222) How do airplanes stay up? (629.13). Curiosity is satiated here, and not just children’s. I picture an old, white-haired woman reading the FAQ section in The Complete Book of Flower Preservation or waiting in line to check out Patricia Smith’s Modern Collector’s Dolls.
I scan a hardback’s glossy barcode on the self-check-out computers, and tuck it into my bag next to my new iPad. I am not the only one who still borrows books. In fact, the America Library Association says, library use is on the incline, increasing 5 percent every year for the last 10. Libraries are adapting, too. Two-thirds of public libraries offer e-books and 99.3 percent provide computers and internet. Metal card catalogues auction on eBay as “vintage” and loan cards in pockets no longer get date stamped upon check-out.
Some might frequent libraries because our history is there and because knowledge is still free. Others might drop by for the ambiance or because they appreciate the infrastructure established solely for the exchange of ideas. Some might appreciate the community.
The truth is, I don’t know why brick-and-mortar libraries still serve a purpose. I could have checked out the e-book version, but instead, sitting somewhere in the mid-800s of nonfiction, I have found a perfect location, just light enough to read but shielded from passerby. Turning the thick, dinner-stained pages of Ramona the Pest, the dust jacket crinkles and within a single chapter I am eight again.This is my third place; my place between work and home where I belong. And sitting here is why I continue to fight for public libraries.