Where Would I Be Without Public Libraries?

An op-ed piece by Mary Vavrina in today’s Falls Church News-Press brought to my attention the fact that the Fairfax County Public Library Board will soon be voting on a plan to “streamline” all county library services. And in this context, “streamline” is not synonymous with “make more efficient,” unless your definition of efficiency is to simply cut service. Among the items proposed in this plan:

  • Drastically reducing the number of staff available to serve library patrons
  • Eliminating the requirement for ANY staff member to have a Masters of Library Science (MLS) Degree
  • Eliminating children/youth services librarians

National politics no longer makes my blood boil, but when people start messing with libraries, it gets my dander1 up. I have been a library user as far back as I can remember. Indeed, I’ve written about how I discovered my passion for astronomy way back in kindergarten or first grade, thanks to the Franklin Township Library in New Jersey, where i lived at the time.

It got me thinking, if, growing up, the libraries I used faced the kind of draconian streamlining proposed in the Fairfax County library system, what might I have lost? It’s really not that hard to figure out. Without a good library I would have lost, or never gained:

  1. A passion for astronomy. I discovered astronomy books like The Nine Planets when I was only five or six years old. I must have checked the book out of the library a dozen times. Why not? It was free!
  2. A passion for science. Reading about astronomy made me curious about science in general. Thankfully, there were librarians who worked well with children and could help me find new and interesting books to feed my curiosity. It was from librarians, not teachers in school, that I learned about the Dewey Decimal System, and that the science books were in the 500s.
  3. A freedom of thought. One book leads naturally to another. A library made it possible for me to experiment with everything without costing me any money. I could check out a book on the history of France. If I didn’t like it, I could return it and check out a different book, maybe one on horses, or dinosaurs. There was no risk. I was free to roam.
  4. A head start in reading. My parents read to me when I was a kid. For as far back as I can remember, I wanted to learn to read. I was frustrated by the fact that I had pretty much memorized every book I owned. The library provided a constant stream of fresh material for me to practice with as I was learning to read. I have no doubt that the library made me a better reader.
  5. The ability to think critically. You read a book and you form opinions. You learn to be critical, how to separate fact from fiction. If an author made a claim that I found farfetched, I learned to look up the sources they cited, thanks to the patient help of librarians, who taught me how to use the card catalog.
  6. Endless hours of content entertainment. A movie lasts 2 hours, a TV show, 50 minutes. But the books I brought home from the library lasted weeks. Fiction or nonfiction, I was entertained, I was happy, and I was learning.
  7. A cool quiet place in the hot summer. When I lived in Los Angeles, I used to walk a mile to the Granada Hills library during the summer days. I’d spend hours in the cool, air conditioned building, roaming the stacks, delighting in pulling this book off the shelf or that one. Finding treasures that seemed like they were waiting for no one but me. I’d walk home with books under each arm, while reading another book as I walked.
  8. A joy from books. There is no simple pleasure I’ve found that is quite as nice as sitting with a book and reading. I remember as a kid my mom telling me that books can take you anywhere.
  9. Becoming a science fiction writer. To be a writer, you have to be a reader. The library was crucial in my formation as a reader. The library was where I first discovered science fiction. I am certain that had it not been for my access to the library and the skilled librarians that helped me out, I would not be a science fiction writer today.
  10. A passion to pay-it-forward. If you don’t grow up with libraries and you don’t grow up with reading, you may not value it the same way. I was lucky to do both and I want my kids to have the some exposure to libraries and librarians that I have. For more than a year now, the Little Man, who recently turned four, has had his own library card. We make regular trips to the Woodrow Wilson library and he picks out whatever books he wants, which we read together.

Without libraries not crippled by cuts in service and staff, without skilled librarians, I’m quite certain I would not have developed all ten of those things I’ve listed above–certainly not the extent that I enjoyed them.

I am more than happy to pay an additional tax to provide better funding to the Fairfax County Public libraries. Not only do I feel it is my duty to pay it forward so that kids have the same experiences with libraries that I was lucky enough to have, but it also makes sense as a good investment. Because we are investing in our kids.

I hope the Fairfax County Public Library Board will not vote for this “streamlining” come September 11. To me such a vote to streamline is nothing more than a vote to dramatically limit the opportunities of library patrons, and especially those youngest patrons of all.

  1. A word I might not have known if I didn’t have access to quality libraries growing up.

One comment

  1. Wonderful post Jamie. I have fond memories of going to “Library School” as a very young child. It was a program where the librarian read aloud to the young kids. Afterwards I was aloud to pick up a stack of any book I wanted and keep them until I’d read them. Nothing seemed as great as this.

    We’ve got to keep our libraries going. I agree with you 100%!


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