I recently read an article that made me think there’s hope for humanity yet: “In 2019, more Americans went to the library that to the movies. Yes, really.”
It was a piece for lithub recapping a new Gallup poll — the first of its kind since 2001 — that found patronizing the local library remains Americans’ most common cultural activity, with an average of 10.5 visits per year.
In a country dominated by disspiriting news — or so it seems — this is a ray of light. Despite division and disparity, libraries remain the hubs of their community, offering safe havens for education, socialization, and exposure to ideas (and people) seemingly different than our own. And at no cost. (Well, unless you’ve been racking up late fees.)
If knowledge is the antidote to fear, ignorance, and/or hate, then libraries may be our best defense in the war to save ourselves — and each other.
I grew up a faithful devotee to my local library. I still remember the thrill of searching the stacks for the perfect book(s), the feeling that I was getting one over on somebody every time I made it out the door with more than I could possibly read before their due dates. (And yes, the burning shame of the occasional overdue item.) The possibilities were endless, and I was a little bit greedy in my desire for more, more, more.
From picture books to chapter books to “adult books, and even audiobooks — not to mention magazines, movies, and music — the library may have been the truest mark of my (supposed) maturation.
I’m ashamed to admit I let my card expire after I left Portland. The irony is that this coincided with my deeper involvement in the literary world as a reviewer/interviewer/fledgling writer, when I developed the compulsion to own (and thereby keep) all the books I’d been reading or wanting to read.
That’s not to say I stopped patronizing libraries, though. I attended author discussions and conferences. Supported book sales (both through donations and purchases). I even moderated Portland’s One Book event after moving back to town in 2015 — hoping the entire time nobody would out me as a lapsed member. (The audience was made up largely of friends and family — so the likelihood of that happening was exponentially higher than normal.)
But it wasn’t until this past summer that mom and I renewed our library cards. While my intention was to encourage mom to select magazines, movies, and music to diversify her entertainment habits — because how many Law & Order: SVU re-runs can one person possibly watch? — I found myself doing the same. Before I knew it, I was right back in the habit of borrowing more books than I could possibly read in the allotted time.
And the librarian (Hi Janet!) would then give me that knowing smile and head nod. The one that says, “Yes, you are one of us.”
Which brings me back to the point that libraries are a place of belonging, and not just for the well-read but for the curious. They offer entertainment and enrichment and foster a sense of connectedness. It’s magical, really — like a Hogwarts for mere Muggles.
The cost is free but the value is priceless.