Making Use of a Public Treasure: The Library

by Mr. Sheehy

Sometimes I stop and consider with gratitude how amazing the library is.

Consider for a moment what it would be like if the idea of a library had not yet surfaced. Then what would happen if an organization put forth the idea of a library and attempted to push it into existence?

I can’t imagine publishing companies would like the idea. “You mean,” they might begin, “you’re going to let your entire town share just one copy of that book?” Such an idea would strike them as ludicrous. It would cut into profits and greatly reduce writers’ compensation by eliminating dozens of potential buyers. It’s understandable how a library would stand for something bad in the eyes of those trying to build a business model around selling books instead of lending them, so thankfully the idea has been around longer than anyone’s ability to outlaw it.

I am no business expert, so as tempting as it might be to survey ideas for adapting the library concept in a digital age, I am not going to attempt to do so. Instead, I feel compelled simply to remember how important a library is.

I should admit that we have a great library in my town and that our family often has between 20 and 50 books checked out at a time. Currently we hold in a few piles by the door most of the juvenile collection about the solar system, and I suggest for purchase likely about six books a year that the library either gets for me through inter-library loan or actually purchases for its own collection. Further, they are the source of all but one audio book I have heard in the last two years (and that is a substantial number).

All this occurred to me today when I read Charles Simic’s article, “A Country without Libraries.” Simic ultimately makes a point about reading a codex, the paper books, but the points that resounded greater with me were the ones that touched our ability to peruse and taste items we would normally never consume:

I remember the sense of awe I felt as a teenager when I realized I could roam among the shelves, take down any book I wanted, examine it at my leisure at one of the library tables, and if it struck my fancy, bring it home. Not just some thriller or serious novel, but also big art books and recordings of everything from jazz to operas and symphonies.

I would never buy a 19 inch tall book about Van Gogh or trains, but I sure would check it out of the library for a few weeks. Neither would I be able to expose my children to Italy the way a huge pile of books and Rick Steeves travel videos could (and did). As I see the way my children and I explore and experience the library, I realize how intimate a piece our library is in the framework of their education, to their exposure to the world. Thus, my favorite line from Simic’s article:

I still can’t get over the generosity of the taxpayers of Oak Park. It’s not that I started out life being interested in everything; it was spending time in my local, extraordinarily well-stacked public library that made me so.

The more I hang around the library, the more I want to read, the more I want to learn. I want to check out a stack of books each time I go there, and when I get home I secretly evaluate my schedule to see if I can eek out a few more minutes of time to read. I can’t, but I want to try, because the library always has something else I want to read next.

Thanks for reading.