“If the idea of a public library was civilizing, so was the place, with its comforting quiet, its tidy shelves, its knowledgeable, dutiful employees who weren’t teachers. The library wasn’t simply where one had to go to get the books, it was a kind of exacting haven to which a city youngster willingly went for his lesson in restraint and his training in self-control. And then there was the lesson in order, the enormous institution itself serving as instructor. What trust it inspired—in both oneself and systems—first to decode the catalogue card, then to make it through the corridors and stairwells into the open stack, and there to discover, exactly where it was supposed to be, the desired book.”
That's Philip Roth, from an op-ed piece he published in The New York Times in 1969. In the wake of the riots that gutted the black neighborhoods in Roth’s home town, Newark, N.J., in 1967, the city council voted to remove from the budget $2.8 million already allocated to maintain the city museum and public library. Public protest, including Roth’s letter, eventually persuaded council to reverse its decision. The letter is collected in Roth’s Reading Myself and Others (1975), which I was reading in a copy borrowed from the King County Public Library in Bellevue, Washington.
I think of public libraries as the frontline of American democracy, places where any of us by virtue of simple citizenship can read any book we wish, without a penny in our pocket, pursue any bookish whim, meet the great minds that shaped us, no college degree or bank statement required, and become better citizens. Roth ups the ante by adding civilization to democracy. I first read Roth in a library, even before he published Portnoy’s Complaint – Goodbye, Columbus in the Parma Heights Public Library.
Sometimes I think the direst threat facing public libraries comes from within. I refer to administrators who cull from their collections books they’ve never read, while stocking video games, Desperate Housewives DVDs, books about zombies and vampires, and collections of criticism devoted to writers whose books are not on their shelves. I’m not convinced it’s even possible for most of us to achieve full literacy without access to well-stocked public libraries (including interlibrary loan). Without them, my hunger for books might never have evolved, let alone ever had a chance of being satisfied. Roth writes:
“For a ten-year-old to find he actually can steer himself though tens of thousands of volumes to the very one he wants is not without its satisfactions. Nor did it count for nothing to carry a library card in one’s pocket; to pay a fine; to sit in a strange place, beyond the reach of parent and school, and read whatever one chose, in anonymity and peace; finally, to carry home across the city and even into bed at night a book with a local lineage of its own, a family tree of Newark readers to which one’s name had now been added.”