BALTIMORE — I still remember the first time my mother took me to a library. There was something magical about all those books. I think most people can recall the first time they carefully selected a book from the shelves and took it to the checkout desk. The library had paper cards when I was a child, and the staff member stamped the return date on it and slipped it into the back pocket.
Paper slips have been replaced by bar codes and card catalogs by extensive online databases, but libraries are still magical places for children and adults.
September is Library Card Sign-Up Month. And while many places now require a card for discounts or special "club benefits," a library card provides free access to a world of resources in print and online, with the expert assistance of librarians and other library staff.
Free public libraries were born in this country. As librarians, we believe that knowledge should be free and accessible to all. Libraries are a one-stop solution to finding a bestseller or childhood favorite - or even job or scholarship opportunities.
Unfortunately, people nationwide are finding it harder to access their local libraries. Many libraries are facing painful budget cuts. The New York Public Library is asking patrons to make donations at the checkout desk. Pennsylvania library funds have been cut in half. Several California libraries have put "wish lists" online for books they can no longer afford. West Virginia residents now have to pay $50 a year to check out books from the state university library - previously a free service. And the downtown Denver Public Library is now closed on Wednesdays.
For each of these stories, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of children and adults who'll have less access to their libraries and the great resources they house. Our national treasures are being put out of reach just when we are facing trying economic times and need libraries even more.
We're losing access to the great equalizer: knowledge.
And, as knowledge changes form, from paper to screen, libraries have been on the forefront of the digital revolution, ensuring that all Americans have free access to computers and the Internet. Yet budget cuts are shutting off computers and sending us farther behind the technology curve.
Unlike mega-bookstores, libraries aren't just located in malls or high-potential sales areas - they're in small towns and rural areas, too. (But many of our newest libraries have taken a clue from the bookstores and have introduced coffee shops and comfortable chairs - perfect companions to good books.) Libraries don't just stock bestsellers; they have obscure classics and nonfiction research books. Librarians can help your child find the reputable website to finish that school paper. Libraries don't just have audio books for the visually impaired or commuter - they have Braille books. With degrees in library science and navigation experience, librarians not only find what you're looking for, but they know a dozen resources that you didn't even know you needed.
As you finish up back-to-school shopping, remember that a library card is your child's best school supply. It's free and it won't go out of style. Public libraries offer homework help and after-school programs - keeping kids reading for the fun of it year-round.
This month, support your local library by taking someone there who hasn't yet discovered its magic. Or, if it's been a while, come check us out again - you'll be pleasantly surprised. Maybe you'll find the latest Stephen King or that memoir you haven't gotten around to reading. Checking out a book from your local library shouldn't be just a memory.
• Carla Hayden is president of the American Library Association and executive director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore.