On Libraries

26 May

Civilization is doomed without libraries. Okay, I may be a bit biased in this hot take: I am the son of a librarian and spent large parts of my childhood in libraries. At their best, libraries are civic monuments that show a civilization values knowledge; I am who I am because of them. But they are also of incredible value for people who share little in common with me, a rare public space with something for all of us if we know where to look. Anyone who is bored in a library isn’t trying hard enough.

I can track my progress through life in libraries. I have vague memories of the Andrew Carnegie-funded Edgerton, Wisconsin Public Library in my earliest days, its card catalogues lining the wall in the basement. After moving to Duluth, my family lived two blocks from the Lester Park branch library, a little Carnegie-style institution that shuttered a couple of years after our arrival. As a kid, the library was a frequent haunt after school, with coveted slots on the children’s department computers and occasional forced labor to prepare materials for the annual summer reading program. In Mexico City, the Universidad Iberoamericana had an ingenious floor devoted to napping on surprisingly comfortable Ikea furniture, which I used liberally on the days I had a 7 AM class.

Libraries have been cultural centers for the better part of two and a half millennia. The ancients built massive collections like the Great Library at Alexandria, a fountain of early wisdom. Thomas Jefferson’s old library, preserved in the Library of Congress (an icon in its own right), gives a more complete picture of the state of knowledge in early America than any historical reenactment. Cities like New York and Chicago have libraries that can stand alongside any museum or government building in their grandeur. Carnegie’s libraries were one of the greatest philanthropic bequests in history: an extension of opportunity to cities and towns across America (and Carnegie’s native Scotland) with few strings attached that did wonders for literacy. Those old Carnegies, now often phased out as technological needs pass them by, had a welcoming, airy feel tinged with a healthy hint of must. Georgetown’s Riggs Library, a wrought-iron wonder inside Healy Hall, is the stuff of fantasy, and many universities have similar hallowed halls. These libraries invite people in to explore, open up worlds even when other worlds are closed off to us.

Alas, libraries are not always built with the enjoyment of their users in mind, and some are instead products of the artistic vagaries of men and women (mostly men) floating up on idealistic design clouds they find far more important than the people who actually use the building. Duluth’s downtown library is Exhibit A in this trend, an unfortunate attempt to be “architecturally significant” with myriad issues for its users and employees. And, sadly, a healthy chunk of my Georgetown days were spent not in stunning Riggs but in the friendly confines of Lauinger Library, an unfortunate brutalist take on its neighbor, the Flemish Romanesque Healy Hall. The neighboring apartments, which looked like little Lau spawn, were redeemed by their superb rooftop views of the Potomac, but Lau, despite possessing that same view, offered it only from one undersized lounge on the back of the fourth floor and a few stray sought-after windows (usually lacking nearby outlets) and carrels reserved for grad students. Modern libraries can work—in Mexico City I once paid a visit to the Biblioteca Vasconcelos, a window into what Lauinger could have looked like if they’d brought the modernist theme into the interior—but they cannot forget their fundamental mission.

Lauinger was an oppressive monolith, but I built a fondness for it anyway, perhaps spurred along by Club Lau, an annual soiree that turned a third floor reading room into a sweat-caked dance party. Early on I tended to inhabit Lau Four, with its respectable views on all sides and convenient access to the global history stacks that formed the bulk of my library checkouts; some friends preferred Lau Two, with its group study spaces and coffee shop. Later, a row of bland carrels on Lau One became my haunt for reasons that no longer seem at all clear to me. If one wanted deep isolation, the Lower Level—a full three floors below the main entrance on Lau Three—offered solitude in the catacombs, except when the automatic bookcases came to life and moved of their own accord.

After I graduated from college, I worked at the Duluth Public Library for two years, a job in which I schlepped books between the branches in a van and shelved them for a while each day. For a quarter-life crisis job, it was about as cozy as it gets: likeable coworkers, little interaction with unpleasant patrons, immersion in interesting materials that occasionally distracted me, a chance to sample library employees’ contributions to the break room treat collection in each of the branches. (Librarians are marvelous bakers.) The Duluth Public Library gave me a place to get back on my feet and out of the existential muck I briefly inhabited, and inspired some side projects along the way. I’ve since become a volunteer at its annual book sale, though nowadays I am mostly just a consumer, adding volumes to my own library, whose growing size is on the list of reasons my current apartment has grown inadequate.

People who don’t spend much time in libraries can now be heard doubting the point of them in an age of instant Google and Amazon and Wikipedia. If one can just check out a book on to one’s kindle, what’s the point of these giant, government-run centers to hold the physical thing? Libraries are also often deemed non-essential: coronavirus has turned research librarians into curbside checkout clerks or even forced them into more extreme job functions; here in Duluth, half the staff has been laid off. Whether the cuts come from doubters or believers who think they have no other choice, they amount to much the same.

Allow me, then, to sing the praises of libraries. Librarians remain an underused resource for research, well-versed in digging through to find the things that are not so easily Googled. They are vital for historians, both serious and amateur, especially at the local level: there would be no histories of Duluth East hockey without the services of the Duluth Public Library, and some other libraries that chipped things in through an inter-library loan network. Their volumes will continue to provide marvelous value to those of us who don’t enjoy staring at screens all night. They have become resource centers in innumerable ways for people who have no other internet, no other connection to resources, and few public spaces that are safe, warm, and reliable. (The accommodation of these people is where those design decisions matter, and in subtle ways likely not obvious to casual patrons.) Across the country, libraries have developed creative programming, from rentable technology to seed libraries. I challenge anyone to attend a children’s storytime at Duluth’s Mount Royal branch and walk away thinking libraries are dying. The stereotype of librarians as shushing schoolmarms and utter silence applies only to small corners of them: they bring together and host community groups of all types and open up new possibilities.

And, of course, libraries remain free, a societal acknowledgment that truth and inquiry and learning matter. They are the rare public space that fosters knowledge for knowledge’s sake, create a home for both the most well-read salons and the neediest of residents. They are repositories of deep literacy, a skill that, per a lucid Adam Garfinkle essay, will be vital for any sense of a human future that values abstract thought or empathy. Preservation of such spaces is essential, and those who denigrate them are accomplices in undermining that capacity for the literacy a civilized society requires to function.

2 Responses to “On Libraries”

  1. commongunsense May 27, 2020 at 7:43 am #

    Another great post. I grew up close to the Lester Park library and spent many hours during summer vacation checking out many books at one time. I especially loved the Nancy Drew series and could virtually read one every few days. I think there was a program to check off how many books were read during the summer. It was a bit of a competition. Ah- how things have changed.

    • karlschuettler May 27, 2020 at 6:25 pm #

      We must’ve grown up not too far from each other! I believe the library still has a summer reading program. I enjoyed those reading competitions, too…

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