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Hallowed institutions

Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland

When I was a kid, going to the library was an awe-inspiring event.

I grew up in a logging family, which means that we didn’t have much in the way of funds over the years, though the lack of a savings account was more than compensated for through the love of my parents and a work ethic that is just short of fanatical. So, when we were lucky enough to have time to make a swing to the library and get some books to use as entertainment, it was something to be excited about. I was always wide-eyed with wonder at the sheer number of spines and book titles that would greet me when I’d walk through the door. I’d pick out two or three and then check them out. The most amazing part was that we didn’t have to pay to use them–we just had to bring them back.

Unfortunately, in my lifetime, libraries of that sort may become a footnote in the pages of history. More and more small cities and towns are being forced to close their libraries due to funding issues. Here in the Upper Peninsula, some have already closed due to a lack of space to house them, while others have cut their hours and staffs so dramatically that you are hard pressed to be able to visit if you have an ever-changing schedule like I do.

But this isn’t a problem just in the U.P., but statewide (and, likely, nationally): Last week, the Detroit Public Library announced that they would have to send 20 percent of their entire staff–a whopping 83 employees–to the unemployment lines at the end of March. Troy, a city in Metro Detroit, recently voted to close its library–and this is a fairly affluent neighborhood.

Those who like to guess at what the future holds have already been spouting that libraries would be some of the first to go in the new world order. Why? Well, let me quote a reader that commented on the Detroit Free Press website the other day:

“Library’s are fast becoming a thing of the past due to rapid access and information that can be had via the Internet.”

Based on this person’s spelling, my mom would say that they probably should have spent more time reading in a library. I tend to agree.

However, the question of why we think it’s OK to replace libraries with Kindle and the Internet still remains. Not to mention that libraries aren’t just a place to pick up a tome or read the newspaper, but a place where people can come to use a computer, or to search for a job and even make copies, attend events and do research.

But the main reason for libraries remains, and always should be, the books. That means those not on a Kindle or other electronic reading device, but rather the kind that have a front and back cover and were actually printed. The books are then put on shelves and organized in a way that we can find them and–gasp!–read them.

If it weren’t for libraries, I would not be the person I am today. I would not write and edit for a living. I would never have picked up my first Clive Cussler novel and spark a burning desire to create with the written word. I would likely have not been able to woo my now-ex-wife, who worked in the very library in which I now sit, and eventually bring my wonderful daughter into this world.

Libraries, to me, are institutions that are far more valuable than they are being credited for. Walk down the street and ask 10 people if they are going to the library in the next week and you’ll get quite a few who say no. Maybe they just don’t have time, or perhaps reading is something they gave up well before their glorious high school days came to a close and the best part of their life was over.

I encourage my daughter to go to the library. I want her to read exciting stories and, just as important, discover new things and expand her interest. Sure, she can Google most of it, but she’s much more likely to run into information I don’t want her being forced to see, and much less likely to stumble across that gem that changes her life.

For me, it was Raise the Titanic by Clive Cussler. That book was one of thousands in our library at Mid Peninsula High School. In 10th grade, I wasn’t interested in reading. Instead, I had football, cars, hunting and, of course, girls on my mind. But an assignment by a teacher (thanks, Mrs. Brayak!) required I read a book. I sauntered into the library, disgruntled, and snatched the first book off the shelf that caught my eye.

I couldn’t put that book down that night. I finished it by the close of the next day. I was hooked. I ate up–and still do–everything Cussler. He sparked a fire inside of me that has not been extinguished and only continues to grow. Cussler made me love writing. He made me want to become a writer. He changed my life.

All because of a library.

Until then, I was dead set on working in the cryogenics field. Funny how life leads you in different directions based on the little things that happen, isn’t it?

I want my daughter to have that chance. I want her to make friends with Shakespeare and Heinlein and Keats. I want her to meet Holmes, Sawyer and Athos, Porthos, and Aramis–and, yes, even d’Artagnan.

But without libraries? Will she stumble across a book about Thailand that changes her outlook on life? Will she find a culinary adventure in a long-forgotten recipe? Will she marvel at the theological beliefs of man that existed long before the first library was even built?

I don’t want her to lose these opportunities. I don’t want anyone to–you never know who the next Abraham Lincoln, or Mahatma Gandhi or John Lennon is, or what will influence them to change their world.

Support your local libraries. Speak out when townships and cities consider cutting their services. Go to events. Donate. Volunteer.

Libraries contain our past and our present–and every time a child walks through the doors, they contain our future. Let’s make it a bright one.

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  1. April 27, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    Just read, this is really wonderful, Sam. I too feel that way about libraries. They are irreplaceable places of wonder and magic. Thank you for posting this!

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