This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.
What is a library, anyway? A modern public building where you can access painstakingly organized print, audio and digital media with a large fountain and sculpture gardens outside; bookcases along a hallway or corner of your house; a large room striped with floor-to-ceiling shelves housing reference materials and great literature at your school; an e-book reader loaded with 4,000 plus titles: all of the above fit my definition of “library.”
If in effect, a library is a collection of books and other media, what makes a library a book haven? A book haven is a place where readers can curl up with a favorite novel, or go out on a limb and explore a new genre or subject without feeling uncomfortable.
So while an e-reader certainly qualifies as a collection of books and other media (a highly portable one), it’s not exactly a book haven by my definition, as it carries with it no physical space for the act of reading. Public libraries, school libraries, and private libraries in businesses and homes, on the other hand, do.
Why libraries are important
Like it or not, for as long as the written word has existed, we’ve been passing along much of our knowledge as a society and a species via books. Oral traditions of passing down knowledge from one generation to another aren’t dead and certainly deserve our respect and efforts at preservation, but they are limited by the short reach of human memory. Books are a reference (and a pleasure) that can be gone back to, again and again.
Having access to a good-sized collection of books and a comfortable space to lose yourself in the words of great writers and researchers will improve your life and your conversation. Public libraries are great for exploring writers and ideas that don’t fall into your favorite genres and topics. Check them out for a month or spend a few afternoons with them in a corner of the library. The non-permanence of getting a book on loan helps readers and thinkers to take risks they might not make when purchasing a book (not that buying means forever in the Amazon age, anyway). Public libraries allow people of any income level to be well-read, because let’s face it, books can be an expensive habit, with newly published hardback titles running $25 plus, and bargain paperbacks and e-versions starting at $3.99. Even garage sale finds add up at 25 cents a book plus the gas you spend to get there.
Personal libraries are ideal for cherishing the books and reference materials that you know you’ll go back to again and again: Stories that you adored and will read again; books that provoked you into a new way of thinking that you’ll share with interested friends; photo books that pushed you to get out and see the world around you a new way; the recipe books that inspired your best dinner parties.
Your personal library can (and should) be a sanctuary for your most-loved texts, as well as a comfortable place to explore new favorites in a comforting atmosphere, surrounded by tomes that you know you can pull out whenever you want, and enjoy again and again.
What you can do to promote and protect libraries
Unfortunately for library lovers everywhere, public libraries are expensive to maintain. Keeping a full-time staff to organize the books and help library patrons is not a minor expense, and then there are the costs of maintaining the building, heating, cooling, water, etc, and that’s before the library buys new books and replaces damaged books. Never fear, there’s plenty you can do to help. Your first priority should be to use your public library and let others know that you do. Number two is use the library respectfully: Be quiet; don’t hog more books than you can read; return your books on time; be nice to the books and reference materials (they’re expensive to replace).
Another way to support your library is to donate your time or money. Many smaller libraries depend upon volunteers to help them keep the library fully staffed. Still others need volunteers for community programs (that get people into the library) like children’s story times and craft activities, or monthly book clubs for adults. Donating your time to a library by giving a short presentation or workshop is a great way to promote your skills and become better known in your community. Do you make jewelry? Why not teach a short workshop on how to make a simple design from a book available at the library. Have you written a book about something? Why not give a lecture about the topic (or even about writing a book). Those short on time can donate their hard-earned green towards new books and continued educational programs.
Is your town talking about closing the public library? Get involved, fundraise, and generally raise a ruckus.
Do you live somewhere where there isn’t a local or area library? Why not talk to local coffee shops and businesses about having an informal lending library where people can take a book if they leave a book, or a local school or community college about allowing the community to use the library during certain hours and take out books for a small yearly membership fee.
Even if you’re convinced digital words are the future, why not dedicate an actual physical space in your life to the written word and share that space with friends and family? Even if you’re reading on a kindle, there’s something very homey about reading in the shadow of shelves crammed with books that are like old friends. Besides, let’s face it, one of the big fails on the e-readers is the ability to lend books and one of the bigger joys in reading is sharing a great story with a fellow word-junkie.
Do you use your local public library?
Do you have a library or a reading nook in your home?
Do you need a special space to read, or are you comfortable reading anywhere?
Chris Ciolli: A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at ChrisCiolli.com, read about her travels at Midwesternerabroad.com, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.