People say that libraries are dying. They say the same about book reading in general. I tend to disagree.
I stand behind the counter and set up library accounts and watch the excitement in a child’s eyes when they get their first library card. Some of them can’t even contain themselves to a moment of quiet while their moms or dads fill out the brief but necessary paperwork that allows them access to the treasures hidden in the stacks: Old favorites like Dr. Seuss or Curious George, Pippi Longstocking or Nancy Drew still hold a sense of wonder for today’s kids because their parents have told them of the great adventures they followed when they themselves whiled away a summer afternoon in the shade with a book.
And, because we are a college town, we have numerous young people fresh from home coming to a new place. Time and again, young men and women come through the doors and apply for a card. They tell stories of their hometown libraries. They’ll tell how brave they felt the first time their parents let them walk to the library alone to spend free and private time finding a world they wanted to inhabit for a while, to make their own choices then haul those coveted tales home in a book bag all by themselves, a reader’s rite of passage to adulthood.
But it can also work the other way around. One afternoon, a young man of about 17 approached the counter with his grandmother. He already had a card, but she had been intimidated by the big, bright, new building. He sweetly and patiently filled out the information for her via the computer at the desk, and she was proud of this grown-up man-child who wanted to share this experience with her. Then they walked away, age and youth, side by side on into the library.
In the small town where I used to live, a friend of mine spent her days as a teacher and her evenings as a librarian. She always said she looked after our town’s children and its books. By the time she passed this last April, she had spent 30 years guiding adults and young people to her favorite books as well as those she felt they, personally, might need to read. It was a very tiny community; she knew us all very well. When I returned for her funeral, I sat in the early summertime grasses with a guy I knew—though not very well—and listened to him lament her passing. He was a climber/skier/carpenter/musician, but RuthAnn had led him to Kafka and Nietzsche during those cold, dark evenings when he had gone to the library escaping the loneliness of a mountain winter. She, as the librarian, had made a difference to him.
In a recent essay, novelist and bookstore owner Ann Patchett spoke of her love of sharing book titles with those she loved. It is the addiction for many of us readers. We share a story, an adventure, a scientific study, a commentary on what it means to be human in this world. Every story lending a bit more understanding or a little more joy in the process.
Libraries may be changing. And yes, fewer people may be using them to find books with which to scuttle away to a quiet corner. But as long as the youth, the children, still crave what’s behind that front cover, as long as a young girl—standing, ankles crossed, head tilted, twirling a twist of hair absentmindedly around her finger—still browses the shelves crammed with the latest heroes and heroines, libraries are not dead. And eventually, another generation of readers will be born.