Save our public libraries

Amanda Hayes Politics & Society

I love reading. Most of my formative years and nearly all of my adolescent and teenage years were spent pouring over books at the local library. I went there to find my next adventure; whether it was riding a broomstick alongside Harry Potter, racing through the arctic tundra on a polar bear with Lyra Belacqua, or fighting on the back of a dragon with Eragon, my days (and many evenings) were spent engrossed in the world of my heroes. I discovered many injustices of history through The Diary of Anne Frank, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I read books on caring for red-eared slider turtles, standing up to bullies (thanks, Matilda!) and why we need to save the bees to maintain our food supply. 

But books weren’t all I got from the library. I also went there to do homework after school, study with my classmates, hang out and chat (quietly) with my best friend, play games on the computer and do research for projects. Not only was the whole establishment a haven of learning, the librarians who worked there were always kind, helpful and smart; the environment welcoming and comforting. Did I mention there were teddy bears in the reading corners? I relied heavily on the relaxation and comfort of my library for many years. 

As I became an adult, however, I didn’t spend as much time there. Life got in the way. When I went to college, I typically used their “world-class” libraries, and internet research became faster and more beneficial than pouring over books. The library started slipping from my mind as resource for gaining knowledge and became a distant memory. I was always on the go; I didn’t have time to sit and peruse the shelves or chat with the librarians. 

Then, as Amazon became the world’s most popular book retailer, I quickly migrated to just buying new books online and having them delivered to feed my reading addiction. I was an adult with a grown-up job and financial resources I never had before. Sure, buying all the brand new books I wanted took a huge chunk out of my pocket, but I considered myself mature enough to not need to borrow my content anymore. I am still an avid reader, obsessed with self-help books and high fantasy, but at one point, I was between jobs and my new book budget all but evaporated. I lamented the loss to one of my friends once, wondering how I would ever maintain my love of reading while being broke, and they asked me simply, “Why don’t you just go to the library?” And then it hit me. Why didn’t I just go to the library? Because I thought it outdated and time-consuming. Because as the years passed and I became so engrossed in work and productivity and free delivery, I had completely forgotten about the haven that brought me so much comfort in my youth.

After that interaction, I raced to the library the first chance I got. I applied for a new library card and immediately borrowed three books that I had sitting in my Amazon cart for a month. In three weeks, I returned those books and borrowed two more. While I was there, I checked out the events and community notice board. I was shocked to see all of the cool things that the library, the free, public library offered. Harry Potter trivia and potions classes, lego building meetups, board game nights, genealogy resource classes, computer and software training, family storytimes and even science classes. There were events for everyone; from newborns to students, teens and parents and senior citizens. The library didn’t discriminate; it was a hub for bringing the community together the way Amazon never could, even after all this time. As I grew, I expected the library to stay stagnant, with nothing but piles of dusty old books on the shelves, but I was wrong. Their entire catalog is now online. You can check if your book is in stock and even place a hold or add yourself to the waiting list from the comfort of your own home. You can view and register for their events and classes, and to my absolute delight, you can electronically borrow thousands of audiobooks right from your home computer, which is perfect for anyone who has to commute or doesn’t have as much time to sit and read. Good-bye, Audible subscription! 

Unfortunately, with all the talk over the years about reducing costs, slashing budgets and being “fiscally responsible,” many states have made the unfortunate decision to cut funding from our local libraries. This is a mistake that will cost our country a lot more than it will save in the end, and here’s why:

The library is one of the only places left in our country that does not require you to pay anything to walk in the door. You can sit for hours in their comfy armchairs or at their expansive desks. The library doesn’t make you buy anything to use their computers or bathrooms. Its employees don’t harass you for loitering or give you the stink eye until you feel unwelcome. As our society has progressed further into late stage capitalism, those places are few and far between.  Admittedly, we do have to pay some taxes to fund local libraries, as we do with all social programs, but the cost is insubstantial compared to the value it provides to the community, no matter their income level or social status, and I guarantee that the cost is infinitesimal compared to the taxes we pay to keep Amazon from leaving Seattle. 

For those who don’t have the Amazon budget or access to a fancy college library, this makes all the difference in the kind of education they get. Did you know the library can help you fill out government forms for things ranging from healthcare to income taxes? They offer meeting rooms for free and you can reserve them online. They can also teach you how to find jobs or write a resume, apply for college scholarships, learn the ins and outs of Microsoft Excel, start an indoor herb garden, launch a small business or even help parents teach their children mindfulness. The number of programs the library offers is staggering, and if we were to collectively advocate for more state funding, these programs could branch out even more. 

With all the political polarization and the rise of “fake news,” over the years, the library can be a respite from all of that. True, not everything that is printed and put in a library is factually accurate and unbiased 100% of the time, but you can bet that among the wealth of resources, you aren’t going to find scraps of paper stuffed between the books with images of Minions superimposed with text like “9/11 was an inside job” or “Socialism wants to take the food right out of your mouth.” That is the unfortunate reality we are facing when we rely on social media for our news and information. 

Fully funded libraries will help us discover the cure for cancer. The next Maya Angelou or Karl Marx; the next Ada Lovelace, or Greta Thunberg. There are billions of people out there with the next big idea; the next level of thinking that will solve many of the world’s problems, but when we require that they must reach a certain income level or social status before they can gain access to the resources that will help them change the world, (looking at you, college tuition) those voices are silenced; their ideas lost or forgotten under the weight of the cost of living. 

Free or low-cost access to information and knowledge is vitally important to the betterment of our society, and the public library is the catalyst that will get us there. Donate if you can to your local public library, and ask your employer to match it. Volunteer to help with their events or serve on their advisory boards, take one of their classes, check out some books, or at the very least, walk in the door. Increased demand and foot traffic will show that libraries are still very important and it will put pressure on lawmakers to divert more funding and resources to them. But, most of all, go to the library because it rocks. I have a few good book recommendations if you need them.