When Lois Lowry spoke at our local library event last Spring, she told one little story that didn’t end up in my reportage (and one little story that did—you really MUST read it! It’s amazing! I’ll wait here until you get back).
The speech was a kickoff to the library’s One Book One Read event, and the One Read, of course, was The Giver. I first read The Giver when I checked it out from the local library—the same way I “first read” almost all the books I read. And always have. When I was a kid I visited the local branch library every Saturday, unless that was one of the Saturdays I took the bus downtown, and in that case I visited the BIG multi-story central operation. I honestly don’t know what my childhood would have been like without the public library, and no telling what my adulthood would be like without it either.
So here’s Ms. Lowry’s little story: not long ago, some young friends visited from Europe—France, I think. A country we would consider “developed” and not blighted by years of Soviet servitude. While entertaining these girls she took them to the local library, where they browsed the stacks and chose some books to check out on her card. Back in the car and on their way to somewhere else, one of the girls asked, “What do you have to pay to belong to the library?”
Ms. Lowry was a bit startled by the question, and so I am. Why, nothing. That’s what we pay.
Of course it’s not technically true; you just don’t see the library line-item on your county tax statement. But still, the public library you see in almost every community in America is one of America’s better ideas. And a surprising number of Americans still think so.
Here’s the good news, from the ALA’s Quotable Facts brochure, printed in 2013:
- 58% of American adults possess a library card.
- Americans to libraries (public, school, and academic) over three times more often than they go to the movies.
- Reference librarians answer nearly 6.6 million questions every week.
- There are more public libraries than there are McDonald’s restaurants. (You just have to look harder for them—maybe libraries should have the equivalent of golden arches on a fifty-foot pole.)
- Americans check out an average of eight books/year. (Since about 24% of adults have not even read a book in the past year, somebody is doing a whole lot of checking.)
- The highest achieving schools have well-staffed and well-funded libraries–but you already know that!
America even designates Library Week in April. This isn’t April, but it is close to Valentine’s Day, so this is my whacked-out, bedraggled-lace, hastily-constructed Valentine to America’s libraries. We’ve been together through good times and bad, and I don’t know what I’d do without you.