I’m curious. Did a library, public or private, play a role in your life as a reader?
Last week, in the course of discussing our first encounters with the works of Clifford Simak, Alan Robson and I tangented off into recollections of our earliest crossings between the “children’s” and “adult” sections of the library. I was pleased when several of those who chose to comment mentioned their own First Encounters of the Library Kind.
When I bopped into the library this past weekend to pick up my hold on Naruto, volume 65, a DVD of Galaxy Quest, and several magazines I’m checking over before actually subscribing, I found myself wondering what role libraries play in readers’ lives these days.
I’ve been a library junkie pretty much as long as I’ve known libraries existed. At first I went only for books. Then one summer I discovered that libraries also had record albums. (This being in those days of yore when music was magically pressed into black vinyl.) I believe that, among us, my siblings and I kept out several favored albums out for the entire summer. The library also had collections of the comics I’d previously encountered sparingly doled out in the newspaper. Now, at last, it was possible to read the evolution of various characters. Non-fiction was less attractive to me in those early days but still, occasionally, I’d take out a book about some art or craft that interested me.
I do much the same today. I take out novels, but I also take out armloads of research materials. I miss the old card catalogs, but computer catalogs do make inter-branch loans incredibly easy. I’ve typed my library card number in so many times that I actually have the fifteen digits memorized. With the resources offered by having the entire library system available to me for a few keystrokes and a little patience, I’ve explored works I might otherwise never have known were available.
I see lots of young parents in the library, but usually their arms are full of kids or books for the kids, not for themselves. I’ve garnered the impression that folks between their tweens and, say, early thirties, seem to have dropped out of the library scene, except when the need to pick up something related to a certification exam or suchlike drives them through the doors.
This isn’t just based observation when I’m in the library – after all, my hours are weird and erratic, as benefits my self-employed state. Instead, I’ve received the impression when I’ve mentioned something I’ve taken out of the library (ours has a pretty good manga collection), and co-hobbyists seem unaware of the option. So I’ve wondered… Has the library been replaced by the internet for a certain age group? If so, I think that’s a pity.
Using the library is nearly as easy as reading off the net. Many library catalogs are available on-line. That means it’s possible to order in advance, and only stop by the library to pick up the swag when it comes in. In some cases, as with audio books, more and more libraries are offering downloads. I take out several each week without ever leaving the comfort of home.
But I believe I’ll always enjoy trips to the library. There’s nothing like browsing through open stacks for discovering books you might not have otherwise found. When I was researching for my novel Child of a Rainless Year, I encountered Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens by Patricia Lynne Duffy, a non-fiction work about synesthesia. I was looking for another book on another subject entirely. Yet, this accidental find shaped some elements of my novel. Without that idle wander down the shelves, I never would have encountered it and my novel would have missed something special. It’s hard to have the same sort of impulse contact, even with the best search engine and most provocative series of links.
Some years ago, our library started shelving non-fiction for children side-by-side with adult books on the same topic. I think space considerations were part of the reason, but part was to tempt children to cross the line. This pays off for adults, too. Often the best way to learn about a new subject is to read a treatment for children. Terms are often better defined, providing a foundation from which to read further.
I know some people think there shouldn’t be a “Children’s” section at all. I can see the arguments for both sides. As with so many issues regarding what children should and should not be exposed to, I think that parental, rather than institutional, guidance is advised.
But I wander a bit far… How do you feel about libraries? Do you use them? Do you like how they are changing? Do you think the internet has made them obsolete, and that they should be replaced by rows of computer terminals?