Check out your community at the library

Didn't I meet you at the library?" The query came from a petite woman with tortoise-shell glasses across the aisle on my flight to Chicago. In fact, we had met at the New York Public Library the week before, at the start of my trip. She had shown me where the printer was, and we'd discovered our common passion for Toni Morrison novels.

Suddenly, on a plane filled with hundreds of business travelers and tourists, the world didn't seem so big anymore.

Our wanderlust and workaholism are often blamed for weakening community ties. Although the idea of community is hard to define, at its most basic, it's a social-support network to ease isolation and loneliness.

Many people would like to reach out, but find few opportunities to do so. The replacement of local shops by megachains has changed our idea of Main Street. We practically live in our cars, far from family and old friends. Shopping malls are hardly conducive to meeting people. And these days, it's often considered more nosy than friendly to approach your neighbors.

So my experience on the plane is not trivial. Amid all the finger-pointing over weakening communities, libraries offer opportunities for structured and unstructured interaction. Khafre Abif, director of library services for children at the Brooklyn Public Library, describes how during story hour, parents of three-, four-, and five-year-olds wait outside - and meet each other. He said, "I've seen people say, 'You live there? I'm only a block away.' They were neighbors and didn't even know it."

At the Skillman Southwest branch of the Dallas library system, every February to April a group of retirees offers tax advice to hundreds of stressed-out, desperately confused taxpayers. The same volunteers have worked together for years and become great friends.

"My wife was so relieved when I found my place at the library," said one Skillman volunteer. "I didn't realize how restless I'd be not working. Serving others this way has given me some of the greatest rewards of my life."

But community is not just a solution to loneliness - it balances support with obligation and teaches us responsibility and social norms.

For example, the Ela Area Public Library District in Lake Zurich, Ill., has an after-school program for elementary and junior-high kids staffed by high school volunteers. It offers young people a safe place to interact and learn in a more-open environment than classrooms. While helping younger kids with homework, high school students learn responsibility.

Libraries give us the space and the chance to realize our common humanity: curiosity, a desire to learn, and a need to be connected. These ties aren't based solely on a neighborhood, ethnicity, or experience. They're rooted in a sense of understanding and respect for others that comes from knowledge about them.

More than simply teaching responsibility, libraries provide the resources to help people be stronger community members. Anyone can come to the library to conduct market research for startup companies, or research summer camps and training programs and colleges; to look for jobs, or learn English, or study scientific advances; and to connect with others around the globe via the Internet.

And you never can tell how far these connections will go.

As my flight neighbor and I grabbed our bags and compared notes on Web sites, I was struck by how libraries build community by connecting us with ideas, information, and each other. I might have gone the whole flight without saying a word to the woman across the aisle. But thanks to the library, we had already met.

* Sarah Ann Long, director of the North Suburban Library System in Wheeling, Ill., is president of the American Library Association, which is sponsoring National Library Week (April 9-15).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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