I went to one of the older branches of the city library last night to return a book, and stopped as soon as I walked in so I could breathe in deeply. What is that library smell that’s so amazing? The place was quietly bubbling with people at tables shifting to reach this book or that, someone speaking with a staff member at the checkout desk, and a few others stretching to reach up or down along the corridors of shelves.
I’ve always loved libraries and spent a lot of time in our local branch as a kid. Friday nights my mom grocery shopped and I went to check out a stack of books. Librarians were all knowing and usually friendly, except for those who shushed at any sound above a scuff of a toe. Some librarians even frowned at that. Silence was golden in those days.
But silence was nothing because the place was loud with words. While I was too shy as a kid to ask for much help from librarians, I was well aware of their power. They knew where things were; that Dewey Decimal System was their compass. This was before self-checkout, so librarians had the knowledge of what people in the community were reading; they could approve or disprove, I imagined.
I admire the capacity of librarians to change the world. In Librarians and Social Activism, Su Epstein reflects on the lead up to last fall’s election in the US. In theory Epstein writes, librarians are public servants who are apolitical, yet in their choices of creating collections and supporting the public to use them, librarians contribute to discussions of diversity and multiculturalism. Are librarians social activists, asks Epstein? Yes, she concludes, they are.
I love that libraries are spaces for discussion, discovery and change. I was happy to come across a recent piece about a local library being a space where people without secure housing could get help. I’m reading Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal, and there is a character who volunteers in the library of a society sharp and deadly with racism. The volunteer insists everyone should have access to the library, issuing cards to anyone who asks. In Social Justice and the Public Library, Sarah Hashemi challenges her librarian colleagues to think about social justice issues, including who does and doesn’t have access to library card because of residency requirements or policies.
In response to those who think public libraries are obsolete, Jessica Riddell wrote on the importance of libraries in Get Thee to a Library: It’s More Important Than Ever. She said, “Public libraries uphold values of inclusivity, social and cultural literacy, and equal access to knowledge – all key values of a vibrant and thriving democracy.”
Hear, hear. Libraries are an important part of societies, places where all should be able to connect and learn, word by word and concept by concept.
Image: Beloved pages, close up.