The Value of Nothing
You only need to stroll by the New York Public Library building on 5th Avenue in the big city to know that serious business is done here. The main New York Public Library is a beautiful, iconic building – two handsome lions stand guard out front – that opened in 1911, almost exactly 100 years ago.
Best of all, virtually everything is free. The NYPL notes on its website that the only price of admission if curiosity. Of course, taxpayers support libraries, but the value of the investment pays off to an individual a thousand fold over, or maybe a thousand thousand fold.
Unfortunately, the public library, the great leveler of a society that is increasingly made up of haves and have nots, is having less and less to work with. One of the great myths about libraries, expressed primarily by penny-pinching politicians and folks who never set foot in a library, is that the Internet is making libraries obsolete. It’s a foolish notion on par with thinking that computers can somehow replace teachers or smart librarians.
Yet, even the venerable NYPL is staring down a potential $40 million budget cut that could keep the doors closed three days out of seven.
This devaluing of libraries seems to be a occurring world-wide and it is definitely a step backwards. In England a debate has been raging for weeks about proposed cuts to the library system there. Writing in the Guardian, Robert McCrum, calls the proposed cuts “a thoughtless cultural crime whose after-effects will linger for decades.”
In a piece both celebrating the 100th anniversary of the NYPL and lamenting the real and potential reduction in support of libraries, Laura Miller writes, “Not everything we need or want to know about the world can be transmitted via a screen, and not every experience can be digitized.”
Libraries are valuable for many, many reasons, not least for the sanctuary, solitude and security they provide. In most American communities the library is the safest, most egalitarian place you can visit. Moms bring kids. Grandpas bring grand kids. High school kids bring dates. Old guys read the papers. Young girls study. People lose themselves in books and magazines and folks queue up to get on a computer or, increasingly, check out an e-book.
I’ll get some debate on this assertion, but Boise High School in the north end of Idaho’s capitol city in about the best high school in Idaho and one of the best in the country, yet prize winning writer Tony Doerr found that the Boise High library, smack dab in the middle of a very good school, is depending on donations and fundraising in order to have any new money this year.
Doerr wrote Sunday in the New York Times, that his mom, a school teacher, introduced him to the magic of libraries. “Thanks to her, in my imagination libraries were little holy lands, as integral to a school as functioning toilets, or lockers, or bad pizza. They were a place where a child could learn that books could be mind-blowing, unpredictable, bawdy and frightening, that books could break down the divisions between nations, between foundations of thought, and between fantasy and reality.”
When societies seek to control ideas – think Nazi Germany – they come after the books. When societies are unthinking about ideas and how knowledge is accumulated and used, they ignore or diminish libraries. Libraries are, quite simply, the repositories of human knowledge. There is no substitute for them. Sure you can find a lot of stuff on the Internet, but you won’t ever find the spirit and soul of a library.
The great writer Umberto Eco says this in the recently published This is Not the End of the Book, “a library is not necessarily made up of books that we’ve read, or even that we will eventually read. They should be the books that we can read. Or that we may read. Even if we never do.”
Exactly. Libraries are neither obsolete nor too expensive. They are, unfortunately, victims of too many folks who, in the words of the old saying, know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
The next time you hear a politician saying that no one uses libraries any more, ask to see his library card.