Leave no public library behind

As a boy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was so poor he worked Saturday mornings shining shoes in the New York neighborhood known as Hell's Kitchen. At noon, he would pick up his shoeshine box, walk to Fifth Avenue, and climb the big staircase between the stone lions into the New York Public Library.

He would check his wooden box into the cloakroom and march off to spend the afternoon among the books as royally as if he were a scion of the millionaires who had helped found the palace of the books.

At the 100th anniversary celebration of the New York Public Library in 1995, Senator Moynihan was an honored speaker.

This fiscal year has seen a 5 percent cut in the budget of the New York Public Library, and an additional retroactive 7.5 percent reduction was recently proposed. That equals a deliberate cut in the future.

I am one of the more than 14 million people who used the New York Public Library last year, as I have been doing since I stood with pounding heart behind the towering desk at the St. Agnes branch, while the librarian tested whether my halting voice could read the library card rules to her satisfaction. I did, and so at age 7, I received my first library card.

To whatever town I moved, my first stop after stocking up on milk and bread was the local library. Each had a distinctive character, from the Hansel and Gretel cottage in Allendale, N.J., to the sleek building exuding entitlement in Scarsdale, N.Y.

The library has fitted itself to the stages of my life, from taking out novels to studying for the bar exam. And not just for reading. Anyone who ducks into the main library over lunch hour this summer can feast his eyes on glass cases featuring an early edition of Dante's Divine Comedy; Columbus's account of his first voyage, printed in 1493; one of the world's 48 remaining Gutenberg Bibles; and a 17th-century Japanese edition of Aesop's fables.

Over the years, I took my own daughters to the children's room, the story hour, the summer reading club. But just as I brought the children there hoping to impart to them my love of books, I also escaped to libraries – to a quiet uninterrupted hour buried in a book while my children stayed home watching television and doing goodness knows what else.

This summer I am back at my local branch – the Allard K. Lowenstein library in Long Beach, Long Island. It is appropriately named, for the user-friendly institution embodies the populist ideals Mr. Lowenstein, the US congressman and activist, stood for.

The summer traffic is lively – teenagers checking out required reading, a stream of people leafing through dog-eared issues of Consumer Reports, the beach crowd searching for quick reads, the elderly laying down their canes beside an upholstered chair to spend the morning perusing the day's papers.

But the library of 2002 is not the place I grew up with. The reading room has been transformed by the 15 computer terminals in high demand from morning until night. The reference librarian has turned into a willy-nilly technology expert, advising one how to look up careers in electrical engineering and another how to access Britannica online.

It is hard to imagine the debate a few years back on whether card catalogues were outmoded. In a flash, the terminals check on any book in print, and show which volumes are available at this branch through check-out or interlibrary loan. In today's library, computers are the indentured servants of the books.

A purist might frown at the popularity of the video section, but might relent when considering the shelves bulging with books on tape, offering everything from self-help to Shakespeare. There are numerous large-print volumes, and books are delivered free to homebound readers.

My young friend embarking on her career as a librarian at the children's room at the branch in Manhattan's Chinatown tells with sparkling eyes of schoolchildren reading English books out loud to their immigrant parents.

We Americans naively look at the library as our birthright, often unaware that a free public library system is far from universal. The Bill of Rights doesn't guarantee the freedom to read. But the American library network hands this priceless gift to anyone who's interested upon a silver platter.

It's the last thing that society should diminish. With a library behind him, there's no telling how far a shoeshine boy can go.

• Helen Schary Motro is an American lawyer and columnist living in Israel and New York.

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