There is nothing I am happier to pay taxes for than libraries.
Over the course of my life, wherever I have lived, libraries have been a reassuring constant. There was the childhood joy of discovering an endless feast of books at the Oakland Public Library. The delight of watching all ten Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies on the big screen at the Boston Public Library. The gift of quiet in the reading rooms of university libraries. And now, from the DC Public Library, the underappreciated miracle of simply opening a phone app and instantly accessing an e-book or audiobook.
Libraries are there for the basics, of course – for books, readers, and reading. But libraries (and librarians) also have stepped up for the complex and challenging parts of life in a way that other civic institutions struggle to match.
Libraries are there for people. For a table and chair to do homework. For a comfortable armchair to read in. For rooms hosting community meetings and book clubs. But libraries are also an essential resource for people experiencing homelessness and poverty. They are warm in the winter and cool in the summer. They are open to all and open for many hours. They have water fountains and restrooms. They are a place to sit in peace without being told to “move along.” And at the library, everything is free.
Libraries are there for books. For board books and picture books. For novels and self-help titles and scholarly tomes. But libraries aren’t just there for the easy stuff. Libraries also stand up against book banning. Libraries offer books in which readers can see themselves represented across all the many dimensions of humanity. Libraries offer books in Spanish and in other languages beyond English. They offer music and movies. They provide a free place to use a computer. And libraries keep up with technology. Over the years, they pivoted seamlessly from books-on-tape to books-on-CD to digital e-books and audiobooks. Without even knowing what will come next, we can feel confident that libraries will bring it to us.
Libraries are not health institutions, and yet they played a critical role in our nation’s response to Covid. Even when forced to close or severely restrict access in the early days of the pandemic, they developed clever ways to keep citizens engaged. They extended and re-extended due dates. They offered curb-side pickups. They doubled down on digital methods to access books, magazines, newspapers, music, and movies, keeping millions from developing “cabin fever.” And in some cities, libraries provided essential public access points for free masks, self-tests, and vaccines.
Do libraries do all these things perfectly? Of course not. Do they do them better in some places than others? Absolutely. Is any other civic institution meeting so many complex challenges that lie beyond its original scope? I don’t think so.
When I was young, the librarian I knew best was Beulah Parker. With her old-fashioned oxfords, tweed skirts, and 1920s hairstyle, she looked every bit the classic “Marian the Librarian.” She taught me to classify books using the Dewey Decimal System; to type catalog cards and file them in little drawers; to glue pockets into new books; and to stamp due dates with a special librarian pencil. These specific skills are obsolete, but the delight in books and the all-purpose organizational skills that Mrs. Parker imparted have outlived her.
Today, there are hundreds of thousands of librarians and library assistants serving US libraries. These tireless workers deserve our society’s gratitude for accepting so many significant challenges with flexibility, creativity, determination, and grace.