Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Libraries were this girl's best friends

An initiative will be launched today to nudge policymakers away from seeing successful book lending and the encouragement of reading as the prime goals of Britain's public library service.

Instead the emphasis should shift to whether libraries help governments promote their wider health, educational and social objectives.


When I was a kid, we moved 11 times in 10 years. Each year, we'd land, fresh in some town where I knew nobody, usually in the middle of summer, and those long summer months with nothing to do would stretch before me. Because we moved so often, my mother was the anti-packrat. I mean, she kept nothing if it could be helped. We were not a family that schlepped boxes and boxes of books from state to state.

But, my mother loved to read. So, one of the first things we would do in a new town is find the library. As soon as we had received our first piece of mail (proof of our home address), my brothers, mother, and I would walk (my mother didn't drive) to the library and sign up for cards. Once I had access to books, I could survive another summer by myself. Curled up on a couch, I would plough through several books a week, lost in worlds of others' making, and distracted from the distress of knowing that I faced another "first" day of school where I would be the "new kid."

I understand that libraries are not getting the usage they once did. But the plan in Great Britain to turn libraries into clearinghouses of government information, to turn the libraries themselves into places of indoctrination--well that gives me the creeps.

It's bad enough here in the U.S., where until recently, library records were the super-secret decoding ring of the Patriot Act. The USA has a proud history of censoring what can and cannot go into a library. From the Comstock Laws, which banned "obscene" material (and by obscene, we mean material that contained information about contraceptives) from the mails and thus, distribution, to the regular outbreaks of community hysteria about debauchery in the stacks, libraries have found themselves the battleground for the suppression of dangerous ideas.

But access to ideas is the first principle of education. Education includes exposure to things outside your ken. And I spent summers reading everything from Roald Dahl novels to biographies of queens to Judy Blume to the history of science and beyond. I didn't need to spend a lot of time in the real world. By the time I was 12, I had seen more of the United States than most adults. I needed books, not more hours in a moving van.

Libraries were my theme parks. And while we obsess that children no longer read because they're too busy playing video games, truth is, there are a lot of kids--and adults--out there for whom libraries are the Midway the Roller Coaster and the Tunnel of Love all rolled into one.

The answer to rejuvenating libraries is not to turn them into government promotion centers. Libraries will be relevant again when education is allowed to do what it does best. Not to breed career-track automatons, but to awaken the hunger for self. The library fed me. I grew fat on its riches. I would have starved to death in an indoctrination camp.


Blogger Sheryl said...

Hi Lorraine,

Popping by to see what's new on your mind.

My mom's a bookaholic as well. My brother too. I guess I have too much of my dad in me.

Hope you are enjoying your new blog.



7:45 PM  
Blogger Jane said...

I've always loved libraries. As a child, I lived on a farm and while we had books (one's like the original Tom Swift series that had been my Dad's as a boy) the resources weren't unlimited. My Grandfather got me my first library card when I was 8 and stuck at home with the mumps. He brought home Black Beauty for me to read while I was getting better. My other grandparents lived in town, two blocks from the library. A visit there meant one trip to the library in the morning when it opened and another trip just before closing time to take those books back and pick up a stack for the evening. Today, my house is full of books, but the library is still the mainstay of my reading adventures. We go at least every other week and sometimes every week.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too has allways been a serious bookworm. It all accellerated enormously when my family moved to a small place in the countryside where I was the only one my age. I read all my free hours from age 12-15. It's what helped me form my own opinions, regardless of what those around me thought.

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