This article was originally published in Writers In The Storm on July 13, 2016.
Libraries are magical places. At least they always have been for me. As a child I wanted lots of stuff – an unending supply of Bubblicious, a puppy, checkerboard Vans, eyes that didn’t need glasses – and I managed to collect only a few, exceptwhen we went to the library. I was a lover of books, and everything in the library I could have. For free. If it caught my eye, into the library bag it would go. The smooth pages and colorful bindings were a rainbow of promise.
Throughout much of my life, my view of the library was only this: It was a peaceful place, beloved and wonderfully generous. But it became so much more when I crossed over from patron, to part of a library’s inner workings. In 2008, I became a member of the Board of Directors for the Salt Lake City Public Library, a 5-Star–rated system consisting of a 250,000 square-foot downtown library and seven busy branches scattered about the city, and I began to understand the bigger picture: the importance of libraries to civilization, to democracy, to the future. It’s just a library, you might be thinking. It’s just a roomful of books on shelves. But no. There’s so much more, here’s why:
Free access to a library is the first step toward literacy. So why is literacy so important? And why is access so important? Because the world is full of information, and the ability to read that information is critical for equality (the most basic of all democratic ideals). Unequal access to information, meaning only a select few control the words, creates inequality. Think the middle ages (or parts of the Middle-East).
But reading isn’t simply about enjoying a good escapist novel (though sometimes that’s just what the doctor orders). It’s about the practicality of navigating things like health insurance forms, employment applications, contracts. It’s about sensing a scam…or finding an opportunity.
And yet, reading and literacy are not only critical for the practical applications mentioned above. A story (fictional or not) is also the nexus of imagination. As a reader, you imagine a setting and you speculate at what comes next. Imagination is the root of innovation and innovation is at the core of technology and progress.
In British fiction author, Neil Gaiman’s fantastic lecture delivered to the Reading Agency in London (see link below), he talked about attending a Science Fiction conference in China in 2007. Science fiction had been disapproved of by the government for decades and Mr. Gaiman wondered why they had recently embraced the genre. He was told by a top official that the Chinese were brilliant at making things as long as others brought them the plans. But they didn’t innovate or invent. So the Chinese government sent a delegation to top technological firms: Apple, Microsoft and Google and asked the inventors what inspired them. They wanted to get to the root of innovation. The correlation? All read science fiction when they were young.
But there’s more. Reading inspires empathy. In a story you feel things or visit places you otherwise wouldn’t. And you learn from the past – what worked, what didn’t, what seemed fair. Many would argue these things can be obtained from watching (television, YouTube, a film), but here’s where I would argue that reading wins. When viewing content you are force-fed another person’s vision. That vision may be award-winning, but it’s not of your own making. In taking the symbols of the English language – twenty-six letters with a smattering of punctuation – and creating a world in your own mind…that is the part that changes a person. Plus, reading forces a slower pace, contemplation between the action sequences, a moment to take a character’s experience and incorporate it into one’s own context.
And what about the physical space of a library? Sure, you can Google all sorts of information that, in the past, was exclusively held in the stacks. And that’s great for equal access. It’s awesome, in fact. But we humans are social creatures. According to the latest State of America’s Libraries report from the American Library Association, libraries are becoming Third Spaces – a social area apart from home or work. Libraries are, “No longer just places for books, libraries of all types are viewed as anchors, centers for academic life and research, and cherished spaces.”
The library building, itself, is a community builder, a neutral place that doesn’t push a product, where people can innovate together. It’s also a safe place – warm when it’s cold outside, cool when you might collapse from heat. There are people who need a quiet space to study or who don’t have access to a computer, and guess where they can find both? A library. It’s a spot where all people are welcome, regardless of age, socio-economic status, or race. It’s the great equalizer. It is the server to the underserved.
As a writer and a reader, I value the written word. I’m enamored with books and the stories they contain. But as human being, I love libraries.