By Paul Smart
I’ve spent my lifetime visiting libraries. For a short while I was on the board for our mighty regional Mid Hudson Library System. For the past year I’ve been working in a city library system as a clerk, getting to know the many ways in which these bastions of knowledge also serve, increasingly, as community centers.
Libraries have become much more than repositories for books. Most of the action at the place I work involves either computer use or DVDs, with most people taking out ten every three days. Then there are the kids, who crowd our library every day from 3ish on, doing kid-things, from elementary students playing Minecraft, Lego, or endlessly asking that I print out coloring pages for them, to junior and senior high schoolers sassing each other and everything around them, and occasionally breaking into fights.
I’ve had 15-year-olds threaten to shoot me in the head, a 16-year-old knock my glasses off, and countless times where we’ve had to call in the cops to quell rising tempers and dangerous situations. But I’ve also heard an 8-year-old thank me for pushing him towards understanding the ways in which everyone needs to practice anger management, and numerous kids move from reading endless Manga works to taking out novels and asking about Shakespeare.
Before working in an urban library I’d never heard about the genre of Urban Fiction, or realized just how many books James Patterson and Danielle Steel publish in a year. I’d never known how many older people still need their daily fix for a handful of morning newspapers, or the ability to talk to people about all they’ve been reading.
Most of all, I learned just how important literature can be, even outside of the world of books. We hear a great deal, through reviews and think pieces in periodicals, about key works influencing current dialogue and thought. But now I know that equally important are all the actions that take in these places where everyone is simply surrounded by books, music, films, journalism, and a mix of people needing a place to hang out where the endless “Shhh” announcements of librarians only serves to amp up the beautiful cacophony of roomfuls of diverse thought and experience.
Am I suggesting everyone read Susan Orleans’s current The Library Book, a best seller focused on the Los Angeles system? Yes, because it’s elegantly researched and enthusiastic, even while a bit blinded to the major societal shifts now forcing a divide between librarian’s OCD tendencies and library’s opposite push to become ever more open-armed community centers.
Better, get out to your local libraries, no matter the size. Each is different, but all add up to that much-discussed “great third place” we all yearn for in our community lives. Which means, in the end, they all add up to—whether they involve actual book reading or other activities—a means of maintaining and allowing for the cultivation and continuation of our culture.