In praise of Public Libraries

Public libraries are the best places in the whole civilized world. You may think I am exaggerating here, but the service they provide is invaluable, and I am very happy to visit public libraries wherever I roam. They have always been a friendly place for me, where I can entertain myself or do some hard work, or simply pass time. In fact, during my travels they serve as refuge and nomadic workplace.

You can really enjoy libraries only if you have spare time, a luxury that few people in the world can afford nowadays. For this reason children and kids are natural inhabitants of public libraries, as well as elder people. Public libraries are one of the few last public spaces in this privatized world, you can walk in even if you have no money, and you are not invited to buy stuff. A wide range of services are available: a collection of media for any use, free access to the internet, toilets, water fountains, comfortable seats warm/cool place to rest. All for free.

Limbiate Public Library
Limbiate Public Library

I experienced libraries from different point of views, throughout my life. As a little kid in Limbiate, my hometown in Italy, I was an avid reader of Game books and mystery novels, expecially the Alfred Hitchcock presents seires, the one with the three little detectives. I clearly remember walking to the library every Saturday morning, listening to my walkman, and swap books. I was a better reader then than I am now. When the wastrel era of adolescence arrived, the library became the perfect spot to meet friends and to squander time that could have been more profitably spent studying. I was quenching my thirst of knowledge wandering around the shelves without a plan, and absorbing what was catching my attention. I have always had this feeling of wonder when facing a wall of books, with my eyes and my legs following the succession of titles. I was also there few years later when studying was not an option anymore and I had to pass exams while attending university. In the library I would feel more concentrated than at home and the presence of peer students with a common destiny reinforced the motivation to study. Finally I also realized one of my dreams: after being an user for many years I had the opportunity to work for Limbiate’s library, and there it’s where I started to deal directly with users.

Brooklyn Public Library in Greenpoint
Brooklyn Public Library in Greenpoint

Because libraries don’t make distinctions of age, race, mental and physical ability, class or income, the users of a public library constitute a rich and heterogeneous group. And that’s where a good librarian has the most arduous task. Managing the human relationship in such a diverse environment is no joke. Sometimes I think that the job of a librarian incorporates the one of a social worker, a cop, a psychiatrist, a nurse. He/she is not only a person who knows how to catalog media and knowledge and where to find what you are looking for (an incarnated Google). Librarians also have to deal with the humanity that finds refuge in this last outpost of public space.

shhLibraries are free public spaces but this doesn’t mean they don’t have rules. The most important rule, which is the fundament of this institution, is to be quiet. I find this truly amazing. You can’t have this in Starbucks or any other secular place. Everywhere else, there’s violent chatter, loud speaking on the phone, blasting music. What’s better than having the right to say <<Shh!>> to people who threaten your concentration and peace?

Beside this very important one any library has its own set of rules, which are often very different. Anyway after reading some of the Rules and regulations found online there are common (and sometimes funny) rules. Sleeping is usually forbidden and enforced by staff (as I witnessed in Savannah, GA at the local library). Now I consider myself lucky that nobody kicked me out for sleeping with my head on a book more than once during my hard study time. It probably makes a difference if you are holding a book or a newspaper, or if you simply crash in an armchair. But there are lucky exceptions. In Boulder, CO Public Libraries, it is forbidden to “down, doze or sleep in any library facility except this rule shall not apply to children“. Rules of Common Decency are requested to all visitors everywhere but some libraries gets very detailed as it happens in New York Public Library “you must wear clothing and shoes in the Library, and your body odor must not be so offensive that it disturbs others.” Lakewood Public Library, OH prohibits “loitering in the Library without making use of its materials is not acceptable. Aimless wandering through the building or anywhere on the grounds is likewise prohibited“. I wandered too without making use of the materials, and more than once, but maybe I looked like I was in search of a book.

There are so many funny rules out there, if you want to read some here is a link.

Today, in the era of Internet and E-books, public libraries are facing difficult times, as some people may think they are becoming obsolete. However there is a great difference between server stored digital media knowledge and libraries. A library exists inside a physical building, often a fine example of architecture. It has bones and muscles, but it also has heart and blood, the real people that keep alive this important institution. We surely can keep studying and reading books even without libraries, using screens instead of book pages. But we would be terribly alone, isolated and lost in a digital void. That’s why, whenever I have a chance, I go to public libraries. We all should support them.

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