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  • Writer's pictureSusan Koehler

What’s All the Hullabaloo about Libraries?

The West Flagler Branch Public Library in Miami was so close to home that by the time I was old enough to cross Flagler Street independently, I was allowed to ride my bike to the library. It was small, but it was a suitable introduction to the majesty of public libraries.

During high school, I transitioned to the much larger Coral Gables Branch. It had stone steps, marble counters, and long wooden tables. There, I learned to use the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, enjoyed glorious distraction exploring countless titles and authors, and found solace in the library’s beauty and order.

Why this sentimental journey through the libraries of my developmental years? Well, there’s been a lot of talk about libraries lately, thanks to Forbes magazine. On July 21, 2018, Forbes published an article by contributing writer Panos Mourdoukoutas, called “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money.” The title really says it all. Mourdoukoutas argued that because the functions of a library are now so readily available online, libraries are an unnecessary financial burden on taxpayers.

Before you get your dander up, please know that the story’s URL has been taken down by Forbes. This action came after a firestorm of online protest and downright anger in defense of public libraries. Even in this world where almost every book, article, or document being sought is available online, people still support libraries. Why is that?

Libraries are part of the fabric of America.

The Sturgis Library website provides plenty of history about libraries. Like most sources, they recognize the Franklin Public Library as America’s first public library, founded in 1778 by Benjamin Franklin. According to the their website, Franklin was asked to give the town a bell; instead, he gave them books, honoring “sense” over “sound.” Two-and-a-half centuries later, we have public libraries in most communities in this country, providing free access to books and information for citizens, regardless of income. This accessibility is essential to maintaining a free and democratic society. Library programs create a foundation of enjoyable literacy experiences for pre-literate children, provide direction, choice, and motivation for young readers, assist adults in finding information, and frequently offer literacy instruction for non-literate adults. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Many libraries serve as voting precincts, offer tax preparation, provide training in technology skills, and host programs that serve the common good.

Libraries allow us to experience books.

A library is like an art gallery. It is a treat for the senses. The design of cover art lifted in displays awakens both intellect and emotion. The scent of books, both new and old, permeates the air, and the various textures of pages and covers create a tactile experience. In the gallery of a library, a patron can wander around and sample the craft and style of a world of artists from various cultures and time periods. This sensory experience is more than just an aesthetic pleasure. In a recent study involving screen-based media, the brain activity of young children was monitored during three different types of interactions with a story: audio only, illustrated pages with an audio voiceover, and an animated cartoon. Not surprisingly, the most beneficial brain activity came from the illustrated story being read to the child. Even better, the researchers noted, is the condition of interactive reading of an illustrated story with a caregiver. Parents can find a steady stream of books to read with their children and can accompany children to story-time events at local libraries. Because of public libraries, these most beneficial experiences are open to every child.

Libraries provide a place of peace.

There is a serene beauty inherent in the Dewey Decimal System and a sense of order established by the equidistance of each book’s spine from the edge of its respective shelf. Every book has a place where it belongs and a category in which it resides within this well-established system. In libraries, we can find the kind of peace and order that are lacking in the outside world. Our cultural icon for a librarian usually includes a finger to the lips, signaling silence within the confines of the library. Few places in our modern world adhere to this expectation. A library’s atmosphere stimulates thought, nurtures concentration, and inspires contemplation.

Why were so many people incensed by the mere suggestion of eliminating public libraries? Perhaps it is because libraries rank somewhere near voting in upholding our democracy. They provide free access to information so that citizens can choose to become educated and informed, regardless of socio-economic status. Perhaps it is because libraries are an important part of childhood, providing tactile, sensory experiences with books and opening young minds to the emotional satisfaction of reading. Perhaps libraries are so important because in this messy, noisy world, we need places of quiet order and peaceful contemplation. Or, maybe it’s a little bit of each.

Support your public library. Visit it often, take advantage of the programs it offers, enjoy the free access to books and information, and recognize the importance of your library in maintaining an engaged, well-informed citizenry. And take a moment to appreciate the fact that your fellow citizens recognize the importance of public libraries. They sure raised a hullabaloo at the thought of losing them.

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