John Scalzi blogged A Personal History of Libraries today, in response to a Guardian article proclaiming the public library model extinct. (Where, by the way, does the author think that teachers get the books to teach literature to "the impoverished" through "compulsory schooling"? Education budgets are stretched pretty thin.) As usual, the comments are worth reading.
I have a few abiding memories of my hometown's public library, as I mentioned a few weeks ago. There's also the vivid recollection of my middle school library media center, where I spent nearly all of my lunch periods. The librarian was supposed to take her lunch during the first 10 or 15 minutes, but she usually took pity on me and let me browse by myself if I headed there right when the lunch bell rang. Middle school was pretty awful to an underage introverted nerdy type, and I felt safe in the library and the nurse's office. The librarian didn't ask questions.
Last year I read 125 new-to-me books. The overwhelming majority of those were obtained at the public library. I also swapped paperbacks with friends and coworkers, and I received a couple as gifts. I didn't even count the children's picturebooks -- over a hundred of those for various programs and classes. There's no way I would have been able to read so extensively if I'd had to buy the books. I rarely do so anymore, unless it's a gift or a title I particularly want to hold onto. There's no room in my budget for new books! Unless I borrow them from the library.
And I have that choice. I have a job, I pay rent, I make my own budget. Kids? Especially kids from poor and working-class families? They don't have that choice. If they're lucky, they have access to books through school. My parents (my mother a teacher) encouraged reading and kept many books in our house. My 5th-grade teacher kept an overflowing shelf of juvenile chapter books behind the piano, and I was allowed to visit once I'd finished my work. And my favorite high school English teacher had floor-to-ceiling shelves of fiction that I spent hours with after school. That was in a high-quality and (comparatively) well-funded school district. But it costs money to fill classroom bookshelves, too -- that's the main goal of the Read Aloud program I volunteer for: to donate one book every month to each classroom at our local elementary school. Just one. They add up, over time, so each class has a selection to draw from. And the students hear a new story once a month. But what reader is satisfied with one book a month? (What child becomes an enthusiastic reader with a limited supply of material?) Who supplements the classroom learning? What model encourages learners of all ages to read widely and frequently, to take books home and share them with their families, to learn how to find information online, all for free?
If public libraries "have had their day", so has public education. Pleasure reading. Curiosity. Lifelong learning. Because the people can't afford it. And we can't afford that.