Give me libraries! A call to action

I thought I was a pretty cool little boy growing up.

I was tough. I jumped off the high dive at the pool when I was five.

I could take a hit. I beat up a girl on the bus. This might sound lame until I tell you that the girl was in third grade and I was in second and everybody knows that a third grade girl is like double the size of a second grade boy.

I learned to cuss at an early age, which of course strikes fear into the hearts of sissies and forces adults to suppress laughter and feign disappointment.

At the YMCA’s arcade, to the kid playing Frogger, my Frogger: “Get off my Mother-f*&cking game.”

He did and then I, without any quarters, proceeded to pretend to control the frog.

I drank. If you were over at my house playing cards with my parents and set your beer down and looked the other way, when you looked back I would be chugging it.

We could debate whether or not these things made me cool, but there is one thing for sure that didn’t…

I played library.

That’s right, library. My brother and I organized our bookshelves of Sesame Street, Disney, and Golden Books and then we checked them out to one another after reading them. We had some of my Mom’s books too. We lumped the V.C. Andrews together. The coolest cover was The Sword of Shannara. And the book that I most wanted to be seen reading was The Stone and the Flute because it was 864 pages long.

Late fees were noogies.

I’m not ashamed that we played library. The library in Union City, Indiana, was one of my favorite places. We’d go in with nothing, pay nothing, and walk out with armfuls of books. The smells were free too, and they were wondrous.

When we got home, I grabbed the books and snaked my way through the adjacent field of corn to where our clubhouse sat in a grove of trees. I would toss the books onto the elevated porch and then climb the ladder, unfold my mini lawn chair, and begin to read.

From my perch above the corn I traveled around the world and to different times and realities, only to be interrupted by a passing groundhog or my mom.

Mom would come out with a freshly made PB&J and glass of milk. She could’ve just handed the sandwich to me, but instead she went to the back of the clubhouse and hollered for me to open the window – the clubhouse’s only one. I’d slide it to the side and lower a bucket with a ski rope tied to the handle. By the time I had hoisted it up, the glass of milk would be sitting on the front porch and Mom would be gone unless I invited her up.

And then it was back to my library books.

We lived in corn and bean and tomato country. The fields rotated as the years passed. In our rural neck of the woods there weren’t a lot of places to get your hands on books. There were no bookstores within an hour’s drive, in fact there still isn’t, unless you count Wal-Mart. The drugstore only carried massmarket paperbacks and comic books which explained the V.C. Andrews in our library and my brother’s banker boxes overflowing with Spiderman and Batman.

Without the Union City library, I’m not sure where we would have found books. Even if there would have been a bookstore nearby, our parents couldn’t have afforded to quench our appetite for reading. They owned a small business in which they reinvested most of their earnings. And we read a lot of books, thousands of dollars worth.

It was the books from the library that made me curious about the world and its people. They likely planted the seed for my love of travel and writing. Without them I might not have become a writer. I might not have written Where Am I Wearing?.

It was the books from the library that inspired hours of play in imaginary worlds in which my brother Kyle would often be some sort of alchemist, mixing magic potions and giving them to me to try. The potions were mainly water, but also grass and food coloring and dad’s cologne. Today Kyle has his PhD and experiments on other people.

Without our libraries, what would we be?

This week the Free Libraries of Philadelphia announced they will close after over a century. The library survived world wars and the great depression, but they can’t survive now?!?

As an author, this scares me. Library purchases account for a good portion of first-print runs. (via EditorialAss) Without them it would be tough for publishers to risk publishing first-time authors and those who don’t have big name recognition.

Plus, where is an author supposed to do his research, if not the library? It’s tough enough making a living as an author. If you had to buy every book you used in your research it would be even tougher.

And what would the world be without librarians? I once requested an article by Isaac Asimov that ran in a 1973 Penthouse. A few weeks later I had a copy of the article. (People actually do just read the articles, you know?) If not for the librarian, I would have had to ask your pervy uncle — the one with the penchant for hippie-age hygiene and grooming – to tap into his Penthouse archive. Yuck!

As a reader and thinker and believer that knowledge shouldn’t only be accessible to those who can afford it, a community or city or world without libraries terrifies me.

I was in downtown Muncie, my hometown, a few weeks ago and stumbled into the library. Budget cuts turned it into an archive of Indiana history. A big beautiful archive with a domed ceiling that no one visits and nothing can be checked out. You can walk to the old library; you don’t need a car. There are crosswalks and sidewalks. The same can’t be said for the other city libraries. You have to drive to them or take a bus and then brave streets that aren’t pedestrian friendly. There were five libraries in Muncie, now there are three counting the archive.

The Union City library hasn’t changed much either other than Mrs. Miller, the tiny librarian with the great Story Time voice, has retired. The technology is the same. I recently did a reading there and I had to bring my own projector to show my presentation. The pull down screen that hangs over the door wouldn’t stay down and we had to attach it to a chair with a plastic coat hanger. It came undone and flew up and crashed with bang. It was funny and the audience laughed (see the video below). But you know, it was really sad.

I know that times are tough for all levels of government, but cutting funds to the libraries are the last thing we should do. Roads full of potholes don’t make us dumber; they don’t jeopardize the future of our children, our cities, our country.

Give me potholes! Give me libraries! (Unfortunately in Muncie, we have a growing number of the former and decreasing number of the latter.)

Raise our taxes, fine! Give me libraries!

Cancel the city fireworks! Give me libraries!

Keep your deputy assistant junior mayor in training! Give me librarians!

Give me libraries or give me dearth!

Libraries have given me so much over the years. This year alone I’ve probably checked out 60 books and only paid 40-cents when I turned in a book a few days late. Now I plan to give back and I hope that you’ll join me.

Today I’m writing a check to my local library in Muncie for $10.83. The library system expects a budget cut in the near future of $1.3 million. $10.83 represents the amount every resident of Muncie would have to pay to make up the difference. I’ll also include a letter (probably this post) of what libraries mean to me.

I hope that you’ll join me.

When you do, leave a comment in this post and include your library’s address. I’ll send them a note of support and $1.

If we do nothing, “playing library” might be the closest our children ever get to checking out a book. And that would be really uncool.

(Further Reading: New York Times piece on Ray Bradbuy’s fight for his local library. “I don’t believe in colleges and universities,” Bradbury said. “I believe in libraries.”)

 
16 comments

I <3 libraries! I check out an insane amount of books, CDs & DVDs (& finished watching the “top 100 grossing films of all-time” by checking the DVDs out at the library for free)!

Anyway, I’m a little confused on the library that is closing. That’s terrible! Is it a public library? Is there another library system in Philadelphia?

Kelsey says:

Tofu, It’s a system of 54 libraries. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the car lately and I’m not sure what I’d do without my books on tape. I think it’s fascinating how libraries have become centers of technology as well. Being a librarian today is nothing like it was 15 years ago.

amy says:

aww.. I miss the UC library. I too began my love of reading there and am thankful for the story time and patience of those librarians.

When we moved down here, I was surprised to hear that the county we live in doesn’t have a library. In fact, my family pays an annual fee to be able to check out books from our neighboring county. Well worth every penny to be able to introduce my daughter to all those lovely library smells and the countless adventures that those books hold.

Toby says:

I am a huge fan of libraries, myself. In fact, just yesterday, I checked out a book by President G.W. Bush’s press secretary, Scott McClellan, and DVDs about a bee hive and the influence of politics on news outlets.

My dad served on the library board in Richmond, IL, and fought a number of fights to keep controversial books on the shelves (the religious right in our small town was really into book-burning…).

I think I watched every VHS tape in the whole library between 1988-1998.

Keep up the good fight!

Kyle says:

I believe that Kels and I arranged the books alphabetically within “Difficulty of Reading” categories. If I recall correctly, the rating system was “E”= Easy (e.g. Little Golden Books), “H”= Hard (e.g. A Wrinkle in Time), and “HH”= Hard Hard. The Stone Flute with its 900+ pages and tiny print was the flag-bearer of our HH section. Eat your heart out Melvil Dewy!

Michele says:

Great post! I’ve worked in a college library, love books, use my library system here all the time. We are experiencing cuts, as well. Hours shorter, etc. Sad!

Jenn says:

I adore libraries. My summers were spent at the Evanston library, then later the Skokie library, the Harold B. Lee library at BYU, and the Salt Lake County Library. My mom used to pack all us kids up and we’d either ride the bus or ride our bikes to the library…pretty much my favorite place in the world when I was a kid. Our current library–the Rosenberg Libraray–is suffering post-Ike. They lost the entire children’s section! But they’re slowing coming back!

Kelsey,
What a great piece. Thank you. Back in high school, in a small German town I volunteered to help our local library move from its temporary location back to it’s original, now renovated, historical site. (http://www.bibliothek.osterode.de/index.shtml). After that I kept volunteering in the library. It felt like such a privilege to sort and hand out books at that library. Often, when I was supposed to put books back onto the shelves I got lost reading them and discovering more new books in the aisles. It was most exciting when we got shipments of brand new books. I can’t and don’t want to imagine a world without libraries. Go ahead and tax me.

My current public library is the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Avenue, Evanston, IL 60202

Kelsey says:

Amy, Annie’s sister lives outside of the city and she has to pay several hundred dollars to use the Muncie Library. Still, she’s paying it. Libraries are a valuable privilege and it’s time that we start supporting them as such.

Toby, I think books like McClellan’s aren’t political tell-alls but political sell-outs. They could have publicly disagreed at the time, but didn’t. But once book deals are on the line, they sing like birds.

Kyle, I forgot about that. Hilarious.

Michele, keep fighting the good fight.

Jenn, Glad to see that most of the library survived Ike. It’s sad the other libraries can’t survive their reduced budgets.

Joerg, That looks like an awesome library. I think working at a library would be fun, but I would totally get lost reading and forget to work which could be a problem. Thanks for sending me your library’s address. I’ll send a letter!

Everyone: good news! The Philadelphia library system is saved! http://libwww.freelibrary.org/blog/index.cfm?srch=3&postid=952

Caitlin says:

San Francisco Public Library
Noe Valley branch
451 Jersey St.
San Francisco, CA 94114
(415) 355-5707

Great post!

Lisa Wheeler says:

Kelsey, I, too, began my love affair with words at the Union City library in the big white building Andrew Carnegie’s generosity built. I hauled out armloads of books, sometimes twice a day. Would I have been a good student without a library? Would I have become a writer? Would I think, imagine, learn without a library? I don’t want to consider a world without free, public libraries. We would all be poverty stricken, sadder.

My current library is Carmel Clay Public Library, 55 4th Avenue SE, Carmel, IN 46032. What a wondrous place to spend time. There is a campaign now to have each family using the library donate $10. If everyone does this, we can make up for budget cuts. My family has already made a contribution. I hope everyone considers it, even $1. It all helps.

AML says:

Wow, reading this makes me feel really proud to be a librarian! I adore the Union City Library and its fearless director, Virginia!

Since you are all talking about donations, I thought I’d jump up on the soap box and add my 2-cents worth. In my very small, rural library — also in Randolph County — we have suffered from loss of funding like everyone else.

The previous posts are a testament to the charm of AnyTown, USA, the amazing way that folks rally and support good things.
The Summer Reading Program at my library is four intense weeks of programming for kids of all ages and because of budget shortcomings it is almost entirely funded by the generosity of our users, our local and regional businesses, and two local charitable sororities.

100 percent of every penny given as a gift to the Summer kids programs goes right to the needs of the kids: books, supplies, entertainment, prizes, and fun. And every volunteer helps build a community that can ask its kids, “Have you visited the library this week?”

Times are difficult right now. But I still urge you to consider that donation. Cash is great — but so is a gift of your time. Volunteer to read, help decorate for the holidays, haul stuff to the recycling center, or join the Friends of the Library! And remember, books are only of value when there is someone to read them — ask your library if they would be interested in a donation of your cast-off books for the next book sale. Like Lisa said, every contribution helps!

Becki says:

This is a little late, but I wanted to thank you for raising awareness of the problems libraries are facing across the country. Massive state budget cuts in Pennsylvania mean many libraries are barely getting by. Local support is pretty minimal in the poorer areas of the state. The public library where I work is asking patrons to sponsor magazines, because otherwise we will have to drop many of the titles we currently get. Rather tellingly, 7 of the library staff stepped up and sponsored titles. We’re still waiting to hear what next year’s state budget will be and what it will mean for the library’s hours and staff (we’ve already had to cut 3 positions and reduce a fourth to part-time).

My public library: Pottsville Free Public Library, 215 W Market St, Pottsville, PA 17901.

Thanks again, we need more voices of support from outside the library walls!

Kelsey says:

Becki,

Hearing about Pennsylvania’s budget cuts to libraries last year is what inspired this post to begin with. I’ll definitely send a buck their way.

Keep up the great work.

Loved your article and reading about your passion for libraries. I have always loved reading and going to the local library. Forget buying books, the library with its free resources was the only thing my single-parent mother could afford. Ironically, my love for reading and thirst for knowledge led to me applying for a job at the local library where I live now. I have been working here for nearly 3 years now. Talk about a wonderful job!

[…] Winners win actual cash! Wow! But the coolest part is that the Library Foundation of Indiana will grant each winners’ hometown library $2,500. And if you don’t know it, I kind of love libraries. […]

Let your voice be heard!