What's the best use of the public library?

Who knew that the public library was such a hot topic? Yesterday William Wisner’s op-ed, “Restore the Noble Purpose of Libraries,” was one of the most-viewed articles on the website of The Christian Science Monitor.

As a regular library-goer myself, I was struck in particular by one line: “Libraries are currently popular only because everything's free.”

The observation rang true. At my local library, most of the tables are occupied by men who seem not to have any other place to go. Many appear unwashed and little fed. They thumb through books and doze. Others are well-dressed but restless. I’ve concluded that they’ve been hit by the recession and are out of jobs. They’re on laptops, frantically sifting through Web pages.
Wisner is right that for these gentlemen the library isn’t a place for the patient pursuit of knowledge. It’s a roof or an office until they can afford one of their own.

Wisner’s also right that the library isn’t a quiet place. Mine is full of little kids whose moms and nannies have created an informal play group. If Wisner is irritated that the librarian’s function has become to change the printer pages, at least he’s not in charge of maintaining the changing table in the women’s restroom. “Please dispose of dirty diapers!” one note plaintively reads, no doubt penned by a librarian who can quote the Prologue of “The Canterbury Tales” in Middle English.

Yet, if the library is being used – or abused – by people seeking shelter, community, and the relief of a table and chair without having to pay $3.95 for a latte, then that tells me we desperately need free public spaces. Instead, too often commercial spaces serve as our civic spaces. I’m certainly guilty of taking my young niece and nephew to Wal-Mart to entertain them, and I’m one of legions of the self-employed who use a Starbucks and a Verizon Internet account to do research I might’ve once done in the stacks. However, each of those trips funds companies that don’t have a particular obligation to the common good. At the same time, libraries’ budgets are plummeting.

I don’t think the solution is, as Wisner advises, to return libraries to their more genteel, solemn pasts. Instead, we should preserve and promote libraries in their current incarnation – as one of the few places where an authentically diverse group of people can gather without having to pay anyone anything. The privilege to sit in public at no cost is becoming at least as rare as an early Shakespeare folio.

Of course, if you actually wanted to read the folio in deep silence I don’t know where you’d go. A church, I guess. They’re very quiet and most hardly seem to have anyone in them at all.

Kelly Nuxoll is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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