in praise of libraries

I had a different post planned today, but then I read writer Saundra Mitchell’s guest post on Mundie Moms’ blog in support of Banned Books Week.

Not only is it a clear essay about the importance of having a diverse selection of books available to children so they can navigate life, but it’s a fantastic reminder of the importance of libraries.

Personally, I feel I owe a major debt to the library in my home town. I grew up in pre-web, pre-mobile phone Ireland, where you had to travel to Dublin to find a bookshop for the kind of novels I liked: i.e. the weird stuff. This is not that long ago. The library supplemented my meagre supply of science fiction, fantasy and macabre books until bookshops in Ireland widened their selections.

I was lucky, I lived almost next door to the library in my small town. I was on a first-name basis with the librarian, who was an intimidating lady if you were young and didn’t treat the books well. We got on great. After I had finished reading the entire children’s section she gave me an “adult” library card years before I was entitled to get one.

When I went to college I did a lot of my research and term papers in the university library. There was something inherently safe about being in a place where books were valued and you were surrounded by them. There was an element of economic necessity about my haunting of the library. A writer friend of mine related to me recently that when he was unemployed he used to go to libraries in the winter to read so he would be warm.

When I first went to live in New York one of the first things I did was join the public library system. I was astounded at the range of books available (graphic novels!), and they allowed you to borrow CDs too. Of course, that’s commonplace in Ireland too now. The library in Galway city has recently obtained a stash of graphic novels and I’ve been borrowing and reading titles I wouldn’t have tried out otherwise.

When I start research on a writing project the first thing I do is consult my own reference collection, and then input a search in the Galway library catelogue. I like proper reference texts. The web is really only useful for shallow research – anyone who depends on Wikipedia for detailed and correct information is making a serious error. In my first year as a history student in College my professor drilled into us the importance of primary sources, and proper research.

He also instilled in me one of the best messages I got as a 17-year-old: every text has an agenda, learn to discover what it is and question it.

So, support your libraries. Be respectful to the people who run them because our governments invariably cut these institutions when times are hard, even though the public use libraries more during recession. Librarians do far more than herd books to readers. They encourage imagination, offer safe havens to those who don’t have one at home, host events, foster literacy and do a myriad of new jobs now including offering Internet access as well as the always-important task of archiving.

My life has been enriched by access to libraries. Long may they flourish.

%d bloggers like this: