Me and libraries

My first library was a single room above the (volunteer) fire station in Soda Springs, Idaho, population at the time about 2300. The town hasn’t grown much. The library was started around 1950 by a group of women who got $100 from the local Farm Bureau. They persuaded the town to come up some space: the police department got moved to the basement to make room for the library, and the town kicked in a new floor and some shelves. The women’s group got books and more money from the community, and initially were able to open the library about two half-days a week.

We moved there a few years later, and I got a library card there as soon as I could write my name. I could safely make the short walk across the park whenever I needed something new to read–it was really a small town. In those small farming communities, education in all its forms was the town’s most important function: the town hall was not necessarily up-to-date, but it wasn’t long before they found money to build a proper library, with more books, a librarian, and longer hours–heaven on earth to a seven-year-old.

Great Falls, Montana, when we moved there, had a beautiful old Carnegie library downtown, and of course we all got library cards as soon as we could. The library building was gorgeous, but it was also old, dark by modern standards, difficult to keep comfortable and maintain given Montana’s harsh climate, and too small to hold much of a collection. Again, the city showed what it valued: a new library, with light, space, and a pleasant environment was funded and built. Great Falls is a city, but I could bike to the library any time I wanted (weather permitting), and spent many hours there browsing for book, and many more doing research for my high school history papers. There was no online then, but they had microfilms of old newspapers going back to the city’s founding, all the reference books they could afford, and of course helpful and knowledgeable librarians.

And they had a bookmobile! Even when I was too young to bike all the way downtown, I could wait for the bookmobile to come to the nearby park, and bike there. The selection was small, but I could always find something.

Towns in Montana are not close to each other. Great Falls was a city, but other significant cities in the state were at least one or two hundred miles away. We did not have anything like the Minuteman system to give us a virtual library as large as the collection that Goodnow makes available, and inter-library loans were a big deal, so our library had to spend as much as it could on its own collection.

When I came to Boston for college, of course I took advantage of the many excellent libraries on campus. But MIT was not known for its history collection; when I found a professor whose history classes I liked, I was able to take advantage of the great Boston Public Library: the open stacks in the new building, the beautiful Reading Room in the research library, even occasionally the Rare Books collection.

Since then, in Arlington and, for the last 25 years, in Sudbury, I’ve been a loyal customer and supporter of the town library. When our daughter was old enough to write her name, she got her own library card at Goodnow; her first weekend away at college, she biked to the city library in Rochester to get a card there.

A town’s library, as least as much as any other institution, shows the town’s values and priorities. The library is (not only) an educational institution, but it especially supports the kind of education you get on your own, by exploring areas that aren’t covered in the schools, or that aren’t covered well enough. Not everything the library holds should be a classic, or even strictly educational: there has to be room for popular fiction, controversial opinions, contemporary reporting that might be debunked some day, and now for e-books, videos, and even tools. Our support of the library supports free thought and expression, but also supports recreation–for everyone. Your library card doesn’t care how much you make, who you’re in love with, where you went to school, or what color your skin is: it’s just there to help you live your life.

The library is also a center of community engagement. At Goodnow we’re fortunate to have spaces that can be used for meetings, recitals, lectures, or book sales. Even events that are not library-related bring people into the space, and with luck will bring them back to use the library itself. It should be a place where volunteers can help out, and one that individuals and organizations can support financially. It is that commitment and support that will maintain a great library, with programs and resources that Sudbury’s taxpayers cannot be expected to cover.

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