A PUBLIC library is first a space - a space where children with a gap in play, women with a trying weekend in prospect, businessmen out of a business to be men in, or casual visitors like me come to think, rummage, or otherwise find something useful, or entertaining, in our civilization's record thus far.
No other local institution serves that purpose, except the public schools, which have a more restricted entry.
Now, I had posted the public library as this week's civic-essay topic before discovering, in preparing it, that this is National Library Week.
I've been taking a closer look at my hometown, Wellesley, Mass., much as I have at myself. Observed is a ritual: the same boy that was drawn a half century ago, as if by a cosmic force, to a bookmobile in Detroit during the great war; then to a storefront library (the Laura Ingalls Wilder Branch, where the librarians would ask me to read aloud the books I was checking out to make sure they weren't over my head); and then to a more-elegant structure a few blocks away. The library was a free zone in what was then industrial and is now an inner-city neighborhood. I was a boy whose summers were filled with bike hikes, blue skies, and books. I was not a recovering sensitive bruised soul. Ours was a rough enough neighborhood, but nobody labeled me a sissy because I liked to read books, and later to debate and declaim in our local public school forensics program.
What draws us to libraries is whatever eternal force impels the imagination into odysseys to the borders of the known world.
Today those odysseys are electronic.
Betty Turock, president of the American Library Association, is quick to say that the library today must keep its traditional books and periodicals, plus the now-familiar recordings and CDs. But it must now add a new role, electronic access to communications systems like the Internet, to keep society connected.
"An annual income of $50,000 is now the dividing line between households having computers capable of interconnection and those that don't," Turock says. "Wiring every home in America would cost $250 billion. Wiring libraries and schools would be a much more reasonable expense."
Government agencies are ceasing to publish many reports in print form. Libraries will have to provide electronic access to such materials within two years. This is, in effect, an unfunded mandate that forces local communities to pick up the cost of government's push to electronic publishing.
Electronic information is more timely than that available in books, Turock points out. "War and Peace" can remain in book form: Why convert what works well? But a public would be disenfranchised if half of it were shut out from the flow of new information for lack of electronic access.
Our local Wellesley Free Library spends $15,000 a year on periodicals and magazines, and another $20,000 on business publications, for some 25,000 townspeople to use. The share of my taxes that goes to support the library is $60. For these items alone my personal return on my tax dollar is probably 100 to 1. The same kind of leverage is available through library Internet access. Our library has two Internet-access ports. It will probably need many more. A library needs-assessment group is currently rethinking the town's library requirements, with a reporting target of next fiscal year. I hope they provide for Internet and multimedia computer workstations to keep us at the cyberspace frontier.
America has 122,663 libraries: 8,929 public, 3,274 college and university, 97,976 school, 10,192 special (corporate, law, etc.), 428 armed forces, and 1,864 government.