Who knew that the public library was such a hot topic? Yesterday William Wisnerâ€™s op-ed, â€śRestore the Noble Purpose of Libraries,â€ť was one of the most-viewed articles on the website of The Christian Science Monitor.
As a regular library-goer myself, I was struck in particular by one line: â€śLibraries are currently popular only because everything's free.â€ť
The observation rang true. At my local library, most of the tables are occupied by men who seem not to have any other place to go. Many appear unwashed and little fed. They thumb through books and doze. Others are well-dressed but restless. Iâ€™ve concluded that theyâ€™ve been hit by the recession and are out of jobs. Theyâ€™re on laptops, frantically sifting through Web pages.
Wisner is right that for these gentlemen the library isnâ€™t a place for the patient pursuit of knowledge. Itâ€™s a roof or an office until they can afford one of their own.
Wisnerâ€™s also right that the library isnâ€™t a quiet place. Mine is full of little kids whose moms and nannies have created an informal play group. If Wisner is irritated that the librarianâ€™s function has become to change the printer pages, at least heâ€™s not in charge of maintaining the changing table in the womenâ€™s restroom. â€śPlease dispose of dirty diapers!â€ť one note plaintively reads, no doubt penned by a librarian who can quote the Prologue of â€śThe Canterbury Talesâ€ť in Middle English.
Yet, if the library is being used â€“ or abused â€“ by people seeking shelter, community, and the relief of a table and chair without having to pay $3.95 for a latte, then that tells me we desperately need free public spaces. Instead, too often commercial spaces serve as our civic spaces. Iâ€™m certainly guilty of taking my young niece and nephew to Wal-Mart to entertain them, and Iâ€™m one of legions of the self-employed who use a Starbucks and a Verizon Internet account to do research I mightâ€™ve once done in the stacks. However, each of those trips funds companies that donâ€™t have a particular obligation to the common good. At the same time, librariesâ€™ budgets are plummeting.
I donâ€™t think the solution is, as Wisner advises, to return libraries to their more genteel, solemn pasts. Instead, we should preserve and promote libraries in their current incarnation â€“ as one of the few places where an authentically diverse group of people can gather without having to pay anyone anything. The privilege to sit in public at no cost is becoming at least as rare as an early Shakespeare folio.
Of course, if you actually wanted to read the folio in deep silence I donâ€™t know where youâ€™d go. A church, I guess. Theyâ€™re very quiet and most hardly seem to have anyone in them at all.
Kelly Nuxoll is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.