at the library

The outside of the library of my youth was made of Sioux quartzite (from the area) and red brick.  The entrance was framed by four Ionic columns.  On top was a triangular pediment and, just below it, “CARNEGIE.”

I climbed its steps countless times — the five stone ones on the outside and the next set between the front doors and those that led into the library proper.  For four years, I delivered papers there every weekday, and my dad was on the library board for decades.  It was an important part of our lives.

Naturally, the smell of old books would greet you upon entering.  And then you would see Mrs. Butler sitting behind the large wood desk with its columns reaching to the ceiling on either end.  I loved that place and time.

I bring this up because I went to the library the other day.  Not that one, but the Minneapolis Central Library, in the middle of downtown.  I had some time between appointments and decided it would be a good time for a visit.

Mrs. Butler would not have been pleased with the noise level (I wasn’t either).  The norms of collective behavior are a bit different than they were then, and now we have cell phones, which no one can seem to be without for any length of time.

Speaking of which, with electronic devices in almost everyone’s possession, why do we need a library anyway?  It’s notable that during my visit the rows of computers were the busiest areas (I used one of them for a while too); for some people, the library provides their only access to a desktop machine.  But all of those books and magazines and other materials — how often do they get used and couldn’t we just find them online?

It’s actually a lot easier to find quality information by asking a librarian for help than by clicking worthless links for hours at a time.  (I’ve done both.)  But more than anything, a library is about discovery.  Thoreau said, “The only people who ever get any place interesting are the people who get lost.”  Getting lost at the library will take you to places you’ve never imagined.

The first thing I saw when I got to the library was a table full of books displayed for Jazz Appreciation Month.  I could have just stayed there, but I limited my review to a book of black-and-white photos of jazz greats from the middle of the last century.  Their sounds and stories played in my head as I looked at the pictures.

Walking the periodical aisles is fascinating.  While the number of them has declined and many have been pared down in response to the electronic age, the range available is still phenomenal.  There are scholarly journals of different kinds, literary reviews, affinity publications for many different hobbies/sports/interests/vocations, and, yes, political magazines from both sides of the divide.  As I always do, I grabbed a few disparate ones to look through, just to see what’s happening in worlds other than my own.

Similarly, someone once told me that when they’re in a library, they go to the re-shelving table and grab things at random.  I like to meander around the stacks doing the same thing.  (This time, I found a large number of bound books behind locked glass doors that had the names of famous pop musicians on them; apparently they were compilations of their music.  I need to go back and see them.)

Libraries have needed to reinvent themselves over time.  I remember when the first bin full of albums showed up at the Luverne library; it seemed a bit revolutionary to offer something other than books.  I was tickled when I saw a sign in the Minneapolis library encouraging me to go to its new “vinyl listening room.”  (I didn’t have a chance to do that either.)  In any case, to stay relevant, libraries are now lending out all sorts of things, from musical instruments to power tools, and hosting programs and gatherings for people of all ages.

As a new book points out, libraries are “palaces for the people.”  That phrase came from Andrew Carnegie, who funded more than 2,500 libraries around the world, including the one in Luverne.  Libraries are part of what author Eric Klinenberg calls our “social infrastructure,” which “is the glue that binds communities together.”  (You can listen to a podcast and/or read about his book here.)

Discovery, learning, and community.  We needed them in 1833, when the first tax-supported library opened in Peterborough, New Hamphire, and we need them even more today.

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