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In praise of libraries

Books are only the beginning

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Illustration: Terry Colon

The best thing about a library is that when the world breaks into pandemonium you can hide in the stacks. Grab a nubby-cornered hardback, something like Henry James’ Tragedy of Error—“When a ship goes to pieces on those rocks out at sea, the poor devils who are pushing their way to land on a floating spar don’t bestow many glances on those who are battling with the waves beside them”—find a carrel and commit to redeeming your love of humanity through verse. Or, merely hide; or rabbit-hole into the 19th century through the thick pages; or carve your girlfriend’s initials in the shellacked wooden desk with your sharpest key.

Libraries are a haven, yes, but in my mind not solely for the largesse of literature or breezeways to all recorded knowledge. Libraries are like alleys, places where things happen that—oddly enough—are rarely noted. Children learn to behave, and so how not to behave, in libraries; they learn to whisper and hide if also to concentrate and learn. Many a grade-school romance started by passing notes at a shushed library table under cover of a Britannica. No doubt a few college romances have been consummated upstairs. The mystery and reverence and tinge of secrecy of the library owe not only to the regal, sturdy architecture of books, but also to the centuries of untold stories that reside there.

When I was pursuing my undergraduate degree, campus police warned us of potentially dangerous homeless men hiding in the library; someone had been mugged. It added a new consideration to the prospect of journeying into the deepest, most remote aisles on the fifth or sixth floors. It certainly made a trip to the restroom on a deserted floor a bad idea. But it’s part of the lore of libraries. Public libraries are a social statement, a place where people who cannot afford or choose not to purchase books can nonetheless read books, or sit among them for a bit, and this open access is another thing I like about libraries. Whether all of the computers at the Flamingo branch are filled with unkempt street people on any given day is part of the deal in being public. And in some ways that’s what offering up words is all about; understanding one another.

Today I’m waking up from a consumer feeding fest; booksellers such as Amazon.com had me believing that because I so easily could, I ought to buy any title I was remotely interested in. But just the other day I checked out six books from Paseo Verde Library—for free—an act that now thrills me every single time I do it. Not only is there pleasure in not paying, but in being trusted to bring them back, which hits a tiny little note about community. True, the books I’ve borrowed have the germs of unknown hands and houses and who knows what on them; I’m okay with that. Hermetically sealed and privately owned everything is anathema to respecting one another. Sometimes I find things in books—a grocery list used as a bookmark, a receipt (L’Oreal lipstick, Cocoa Lotta, $9.99; Arch Alert Brow Kit, $12.99). It offers a bizarrely intimate glimpse at the previous reader; it adds mystery to the conversion point, the library.

Of course, the looming question in any adoration of the library today is whether the Internet makes it an anachronism, or will. Whether stacks of heavy, musty, finite books are being replaced by computer terminals opening up to everything.com. I decided to have this one fielded by a librarian at the architecturally breathtaking UNLV campus library, Stephen Fitt. He’s been a librarian since 1976 at various universities. I quadrupled my understanding of databases by just getting him on the phone. UNLV’s library offers access to databases not available for free online—even to nonstudents.

Within a few seconds, he had me understanding that the real question is something entirely different. He says it’s about what a library teaches you that the web doesn’t.

“There’s a lot of garbage on the Internet, in addition to a lot of good stuff. We try to teach students judgment.” Fitt says his interaction with students is often about weighing which sources are scholarly and which aren’t; what’s credible and what’s bunk. An increasingly important skill, that.

For me, though, the library is significant because of place, because libraries everywhere offer much the same peaceful and mysterious tenor as a place of worship; sometimes you just sit there among others and say nothing. An increasingly important skill, that.

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