Tag Archives: library

Why Do Libraries Bring Out The Best in Us?

A young JCLI volunteer (my daughter!) protesting the library's closure.

A young JCLI volunteer (my daughter!) protesting the library’s closure.

I don’t want to bore you with the story of my local library—I’ve told it a gajillion times. If you haven’t read it, you can do so here or here (I’m quite proud of this library, as you can tell!).

But I will tell you that even after the roller coaster ride of emotions I’ve been on with that crazy, beautiful library, nothing prepared me for the despair I’d feel when, on the morning of February 23, 2016, the Cave Junction branch of the library was vandalized.

It was a slap in the face.

After everything we’d gone through—the work and worry, the tears and triumphs—to have the library torn apart as though it meant nothing? To have the very door of the library—which had become a symbol for our movement, for our single-minded insistence on reopening—smashed into tiny shards of glass?

It was a punch in the gut.

But then something amazing happened.

Word got out about what had happened and we were inundated with offers of help. Our community rallied around us. A local diner, The Powederhorn Cafe, held a “Pi Day” fundraiser (with pie and coffee and proceeds going to the library). Oregon Public Broadcasting covered the story and addressed the lack of law enforcement that might mean nobody would have to answer for the crime. People and businesses donated money for a reward to find the perpetrators. Superhero librarians in other parts of the state offered help and held fundraisers. And good-hearted people from around the country donated money and, more importantly, sent their kind words and support.

The library was insured, of course, but on our shoestring budget, even a $5,000 deductible is a big chunk of change. With all of the support and donations, our library met that goal and topped it, raising over $11,000.

I felt like the Grinch, but in a good way. My heart grew by three sizes that week.

And I began wondering: what is it about libraries that brings out the best in us?

I think the very idea of a library assumes that people are basically honest. If a person borrows a book (or magazine, or CD, or DVD), they will bring it back for somebody else to use. Sure, some people will bring back materials late (lord knows I’m one of the worst offenders here—I could probably fund a full day of operation on my overdue fines alone). They may even abuse the system by stealing books (but those people are few and far between). But at its very core, the library assumes a social contract, an ethos of paying it forward.

Libraries exist because we want to share the hard work of the mind, the growth and expansion that comes from deep thought and wide experience. We want to hand over new discoveries that can be enhanced by diverse perspectives, and we want to hand down knowledge to the next generation so that we and they can benefit. Together.

These words feel small and paltry when compared to the potential of the library. This short movie based on the wonderful book The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, on the other hand, says far more eloquently what I wish to say…and it says it with no words at all.

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Ex libris

“King Charles I at the Bodleian Library,” by William Gale

I believe that most people (or at least the people I want to know) have a special “library place” in their hearts. It’s what causes the smile that breaks when entering a new library; the shiver on catching the familiar whiff of old books; the frisson of anticipation after realizing that stacks and stacks of books can be taken home and savored.

Libraries have been a big part of my life for the last five years.  In 2007, my community’s library was closed for lack of funds, leaving 82,000 American citizens without access to any public library whatsoever.  Unthinkable, right?

Long story short: a group of very cool folks got together and fundraised and fundraised some more and re-opened the library as a nonprofit.  There are hopes that we can pass a library district in the near future so that the library is again sustainably funded, but in the meantime we all work like crazy to keep the doors open (more here: www.josephinelibrary.org).

So last year, when I planned my first solo trip to England—sans husband and kids, free to direct my steps wherever I wanted without worrying about potty breaks, snacks, or pending soccer matches—it was only natural that at the top of my must-visit-or-else-what-the-hell’s-the-point-of-going list was Oxford’s storied and magnificent Bodleian Library.

The Bodleian, built in 1320, was Oxford’s first university library (meaning it wasn’t attached to one specific college). That original library, smallish and uninspiring, expanded when Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, donated over 200 valuable manuscripts in the 1440s, so the university constructed a new room over the Divinity School. (Harry Potter fans: note that the hospital wing scenes with Madame Pomfrey were filmed in the Divinity School, and all of the Hogwarts library scenes were filmed in Duke Humfrey’s library.)

Duke Humfrey’s library, finished in the 1480s, lasted about 60 years until, under legislation passed under King Edward VI meant “to purge the English church of all traces of Roman Catholicism,” the library was stripped of all books and manuscripts containing “superstitious books and images.”  (Why do I include this in my short history of the Bodleian?:  it is perversely of some comfort to me to know that my town’s library is not the only victim of shortsighted thinking on the part of autocratic politicians.)

The Bodleian was resuscitated in 1598 by an injection of funds from Sir Thomas Bodley, after whom it was renamed. Bodley established three guidelines that have shaped the Bodleian’s character:

1)      He established an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London that would direct the mission of the Bodleian to this day: a copy of every book registered with the Stationers’ Company was to also be deposited at the Bodleian. This agreement transformed it into a critically important repository of learning in England for the next four centuries.

2)      He determined that scholars from all universities should have unfettered access to the holdings of his library, a generous and liberal policy that allowed the Bodleian to transcend the relatively parochial constraints of English scholarship. (While all scholars were welcome, however, they all had to swear the following oath: “I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, or to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document, or other object belonging to it or in its custody; nor to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.” I know this because I couldn’t resist buying the tea towel with the oath printed on it.)

3)      He ordained that no books were to leave the building. No borrowing of books or materials, period.  This policy is in place to this day for the majority of the collection.

I find this last policy fascinating, because in the early days of my library’s resurrection, we faced a critical decision: invest in the (rather expensive) software that would allow us to circulate books or just house the collection for patrons to view in the library. A very sage and experienced librarian decided the point by declaring that if books and materials didn’t circulate, we would have a reading room, not a proper library. If we agree with that definition (and I do), the the Bodleian, one of the most famous libraries in the world, is technically a reading room.

Even King Charles I, facing a mutinous parliament in London and escaping to the relative security of Oxford in 1642, was denied borrowing privileges at the Bodleian (though in order to appease His Majesty, the librarians had a little stall built inside Duke Humfrey’s Library so the King could taste the fruits of scholarship in privacy). By the doctrine of the divine right of kings, this was the man who was, in Shakespeare’s words, “the figure of God’s majesty/His captain, steward, deputy-elect,” and yet even he was denied check-out privileges.

After my tour of the Bodleian, marveling at the majesty of most influential books and manuscripts in history, I stopped by a pub (as I am wont to do). It occurred to me, as I re-acclimated to the noise and smell and colors of everyday life, that the American library tradition–begun by Benjamin Franklin and brought to fruition by Andrew Carnegie and countless American communities–of enabling every citizen to have free and unfettered access to information is one of the most radical movements in history.

In Oxford, at the Bodleian, I could gaze at magnificent books chained to the shelves, marvel at the scholarship contained in the august buildings, and admire the history of the furniture, the paintings, the architecture.  But in little Grants Pass, Oregon, I could walk into my community’s library and check out almost any book in the building.

In this, I am richer than kings.

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