A Paean to Libraries

Lending libraries, I think, may well be the pinnacle of civilization. Amazon, Sony, et. al. can hawk their versions of the e-book all they like, but I can't imagine them supplanting the old-fashioned words-on-paper type anytime in my lifetime, in large part because of the property of books as physical objects that can be shared and not just bits and bytes to be downloaded for individual consumption.

Thirty minutes after leaving for the airport for my grand African adventure, I remembered the book that I really wanted to bring along with me on my trip, still sitting on my shelf at home. Alas!

Airport bookstores are paupers in selection compared to even the big box bookstores which are actively choosing to impoverish their holdings. These, in turn, pale in comparison to all but the meanest of libraries. And even had I found an airport bookstore with a copy of the relatively obscure title I sought, I doubt I could have brought myself to part with good money for another copy of a book of which I had multiple copies (none yet read by me) at home.

So I resigned myself to wait until I got home to read this particular book. But oh, how universal is the wealth of libraries! As it happens, my sister-in-law is the librarian for a private school in Dakar, Senegal. Said school was on spring break when we visited (hence the timing of our visit), but we still got the grand tour, which of course would not be complete without a chance to peruse the admirable collection and facilities of said library. Among its modest holdings were not one but two copies of the book I desired, so even though one was checked out, I was able to borrow a copy, read it over the next few days, and return it before returning to the States.

The author discovers her native habitat
on a different continent.

What a magnificent idea is the socialized ownership of books! Home again, I engaged in a gluttonous spree through my own library last weekend. We, collectively, the citizens of Oxnard, California, have a first-class collection of books, tapes, CDs, DVDs, et. al. that we own together, and any one of us is free to use them in our turn. Such wealth!

Anything it might occur to you to wonder about, chances are that at least one person has written a book about it, and chances are you can get that book at your library. If you find yourself curious, for example, about the social history of Handel's Messiah, or of the game of chess, a few minutes at the computer will reveal that there are a number of books that could enlighten your darkened mind on these subjects, and you need venture only as far as the library to lay your hands on something that will do the job nicely.

(Of course, there are also an innumerable number (?) of things that it might occur to one to wonder about about which no one has yet written a book, and the one who finds herself wondering about such a thing may well have a Ph.D. dissertation on her hands, should she care enough to be the one to write the book. In which case, the library would be all the more vital.)

And then there are the glorious curiosities that one stumbles upon in the perusal of the stacks, things it never would have crossed one's mind to wonder about had not someone else wondered first and bothered to write a book on the subject. What is a twinkie really made of? What is the special place of music in relation to the human mind? What sorts of beautiful objects can one make with metal and household tools, and how would one go about making them?

Having selected more books than I could carry, much less read in the three-week loan period, I talked myself into leaving half of them behind. (I have become so accustomed to the four-month loan period of graduate student borrowing privilege, during which most books sit in neat unread piles in my apartment or carrel, that it is a new act of discipline to limit myself to what I think I might actually get around to reading before it is due back.) The rest, I remind myself, will still be there when I come back for them. Or they will be a few short weeks' wait away in another citizen's care.


Blogger said...

Yea for libraries! They really are magnificent, especially now with online holds and inter-branch connections. When I was growing up, I was mostly content with what my little local branch could offer, although every school report was an exercise in "What does the library have a book on, and is it checked out already?" But now -- there's virtually nothing I can't get on loan.

Sometimes, as a writer, I feel disloyal, that I should buy more books to support publishing. But I figure my mom handles that end of things for me, since she routinely buys multiple copies of popular literary titles and then loans them out to friends, becoming her own mini-library. She'll say things like, I saved 20% off the hardcover price! And I'll think, I borrowed it for free! And your taxes (theoretically, since she lives in a different state...) are paying for it! How do you feel about that side of things -- buying books to support authors vs. borrowing? I find that being poor and having not enough space for the books I already have takes away a lot of my guilt on this issue, but I still ponder it. I routinely go to book signings with no book to sign, just to hear and meet the author. I never admit to them that I only checked out the book rather than paying good cash money to own it.

Steve said...

I was all set to post here about how I like libraries, and someone already did. My better half. Arrgh, too late!

At any rate, I did want to mention that I'm really glad the idea of libraries existed before this century, because I can't see any way that the copyright holders, video renters, booksellers, privitization activists and Wall Street would stand idly by while we created free, readily available, publicly owned, easily shared, socialized information distributors. Score on for history.

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