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Public Library, Epitome of Democracy

Gannett Newspapers
Written Sunday, October 20, 2013

By charging a membership fee--no matter how small--the public library in Taos, New Mexico, tells the world what its community values and is willing to support or not. Learning the news sent me to my files, where I dusted off this piece published as an op-ed in the Gannett Newspapers on April 19, 1998, when I was a trustee of the Bedford Hills Free Library in New York before we moved to Taos. I feel the same way about free public libraries today:

When the boy nicknamed "Wart," unaware of his destiny to become King Arthur, needs cheering up in T.H. White's sunny novel "The Sword in the Stone," his teacher, Merlyn, offers him the following advice: 

"The best thing for being to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails...That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting."

What better storehouse for learning than the library! 

Librarians, perhaps not as lucky as Merlyn in being able to turn library users into ants or geese to learn the lessons of nature firsthand, nevertheless inspire those who enter the library's doors with the next best thing: The bewitchment of books. And today, with the advent of audio and videotapes, CDs and the Internet, libraries can offer the magic of so much more.

But perhaps more mysterious than anything Merlyn could conjure is the capacity of the human being for symbolization. How strange that at this very moment these squiggly marks that you are decoding are making their way to your brain, the reader of this paper. How strange that the meaning of these marks is as immediate as if writer and reader were sitting in a room together having a chat. 

As biologist George Gaylord Simpson observed, our ability to make symbols "makes [us] the only animal who can store knowledge beyond individual capacity and pass it on beyond individual memory." 

Can we imagine a world without libraries? What would happen to our storehouse of everything we have learned about medicine, for example--or all science and technology? Without libraries to safeguard the bequest of each preceding generation, each new generation would have to start from scratch to acquire knowlege.

And what about the library's ability to save us from having to start from emotional or moral scratch? Anyone who has ever become engrossed in a book and forgotten she was reading has already experienced the "virtual reality" of vicarious experience.

For others, like archaeologist/anthropologist Loren Eiseley, libraries were a solace. Escaping a difficult home life, the young Eiseley, according to his biographer, "took refuge in the stacks for hours on end and had to be chased out at closing time...."

The library that the budding scholar frequented in Lincoln City, Neb., was a gift of the steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. In the early part of [the Twentieth Century], Carnegie gave millions of dollars to build 1,700 libraries in communities around the United States, which promised to support them. Who knows what doors Bill Gates and his wife will be opening with their $20 million Gates Library Foundation grants to 1,000 U.S. libraries for computer, technical assistance, training and software?

For those like contemporary novelist Esmeralda Santiago, the library represents opportunity. There is perhaps no greater symbol of radical democracy than the public library. Making information available free to everyone, the library epitomizes the level playing field. 

When Santiago arrived in Brooklyn from Puerto Rico, the Spanish-speaking, teenage immigrant, whose hard-working mother often found herself on welfare, went every day after school to the library. Santiago borrowed "as many children's books as [she] was allowed."

She tells us in her memoir, "When I Was Puerto Rican," that she "figured that if American children learned English through books, so could I, even if I was starting later. I studied the bright illustrations and learned the words for the unfamiliar objects of our new life in the United States: A for Apple, B for Bear, C for Cabbage. As my vocabulary grew, I moved to large-print chapter books." Today, with a Harvard degree under her belt, Santiago's own popular books in English can be checked out of the public library. 

We have come a long way from libraries of clay, papyrus, animal skins and parchment. And now, thanks to electronic media, we are veering away from paper. The availability of 200 computer terminals in the public libraries linked to Westchester County's Library System, with our local librarians ready to help us steer them, ensures everyone entry to the information highway. 

The democracy of public libraries alone is reason enough to celebrate...National Library Week. 

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