When was the first — or the last — time you walked into a library?
I took my most recent steps into a library this morning. My very first? Well, we are going back in time, not quite (but close enough) to the year of the first nationwide celebration of libraries.
Sixty years ago, the theme of the inaugural National Library Week urged Americans to “Wake Up and Read” rather than surrender to the trend of forsaking books in favor television or radio.
This week’s NLW celebration theme, “Libraries Lead,” confirmed the library’s resilience despite the blitz of alternative sources of information, including online and social media, over the past six decades.
A 2015 Pew survey reported that 94 percent of Americans over the age of 16 believe that having a public library improves the quality of life in a community and 95 percent believe that “the materials and resources available at public libraries play an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed.”
Author Ray Bradbury – described in his New York Times’ obituary as “a master of science fiction whose imaginative and lyrical evocations of the future reflected both the optimism and the anxieties of his own postwar America” – credited the library as his primary source of higher education.
“I couldn’t go to college,” Bradbury said, “so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”
Every working day, I have the privilege of entering a library. Madigan Library at Pennsylvania College of Technology is more than a hub of campus activity. It is a pillar of the local community that offers free community memberships to adult residents of the county who wish to use library resources.
If I had known as a child that I would one day work inside a library, I would have forseen days spent wandering through the stacks, choosing a book here and a book there – one for the beauty of its cover, another based on interesting subject matter or a favorite author’s name.
Work — instead of shelves full of books vying for my attention — now demands much of my time. Yet I do, on occasion, take a look at the new book displays or walk through a gallery exhibition during a lunch break or take time to research historical documents in the archives.
I spent many days in the Penn College Archives during the years leading up to the College’s centennial celebration in 2014. Piecing together information (found in the Archives and revealed in interviews with former leaders, faculty and alumni), I authored several books on the institution’s history and served as executive producer of a Telly Award-winning documentary, Working Class: 100 Years of Hands-on Education, which inspired the Working Class public television documentary series.
It would have been impossible to tell the story of the college’s history without the support of Madigan Library and its librarians, especially Patricia A. Scott and Helen L. Yoas. Helen and Pat routinely amazed me with their knowledge, professionalism and sincere interest in helping me bring the institution’s story to life.
Because I know these librarians, I was not surprised to learn (in the Pew survey) that libraries remain relevant in a changing world due, in large part, to librarians. These resourceful individuals spend hours every day helping citizens navigate often-challenging processes that are crucial to meeting everyday needs – from completing homework assignments to securing critical information about housing and health care.
A Brookings Institution report explained, “In many communities, librarians are also ad hoc social workers and navigators. They help people figure out the complexities of life, from navigating the health system to helping those with housing needs.”
A Smithsonian magazine report also revealed, “The Pew survey found that libraries have become important community tech hubs in recent years, particularly for young, black, and low-income communities. The public institutions provide important access to computers, the internet, and public Wi-Fi networks, surveyors reported. Often, patrons use these resources to do research for school or work, and to check email, according to the data.”
Americans also believe libraries provide safe spaces as well as educational opportunities, according to the Smithsonian’s report: “Libraries are also viewed as critical venues during a time of crisis. In the face of natural disasters or community issues, like Hurricane Sandy in 2013, libraries often serve as refuges or outposts.”
Former First Lady and bestselling author Laura Bush – whose foundation is raising funds to help rebuild school library collections that were lost in last year’s natural disasters – believes, “Libraries allow children to ask questions about the world and find the answers. And the wonderful thing is that once a child learns to use a library, the doors to learning are always open.”
The first time I walked through a portal to discover the magic world of books, I did not enter a building. I stepped onto a bookmobile sponsored by James V. Brown Library in Williamsport, PA, miles away from my rural family home.
Years later, the summer before I entered high school, I visited the “real” Brown Library, a magnificent Victorian facility built in 1907. I went there to receive an award for winning an art contest sponsored by the library. My entry was a scrap art caricature of President Richard M. Nixon rendered from materials I found in my parents’ junk drawer. I bought my first camera with the prize money I received.
As a young girl, I walked through the library’s open doors to discover amazing people, places and things that changed my perceptions of the world.
I read The Story of My Life by Helen Keller and learned that opportunity exists in every challenge. I found my love of animals celebrated in books like Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague and the Atwater’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins. I found a role model in the Donna Parker series written by Marcia Whitman.
I even staged the first (and only) play I ever wrote in my elementary school library, with my sixth grade classmates performing a story I can no longer fully recall.
Over many years, I found a home in the library. We all know — thanks to the Wizard of Oz — there is no place like home. If you haven’t been there lately, in honor of National Library Week, go home to your library, reconnect with your favorite librarians, and find yourself again.