Libraries have been on my mind lately, even though library buildings are closed right now due to covid-19.
For one thing, I’m currently listening to The Library Book by Susan Orlean. The audiobook is a 12-hour celebration of libraries, an exaltation simultaneously balanced and buttressed by frequent and detailed recounting of the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Central Library. I’m able to listen to this audiobook thanks to my library, or rather, the network of libraries in my county.
I’ll admit, like Orlean, that I’ve neglected the value of public libraries in the past. After visiting my hometown library every day as a child, and similarly spending almost every hour of every day in the university library while in college, I mostly purchased books thereafter. It’s tempting to do so when you live near the largest independent bookstore in the world. And, of course, it’s absurdly easy to buy books online now, which I still do more often than I’d like to admit.
But over the past year, I’ve reunited with my local library system, just in time for the seemingly interminable (and appropriate) stay-at-home guidance.
So far, I’ve read or listened to 26 books this year, half of which I’ve checked out from the library. It’s been surprisingly easy to access ebooks and audiobooks via cloudLibrary, with almost no wait times. Over the past couple months, Kanopy has increased its monthly rental limit from 3 to 5. Kanopy’s film inventory includes titles rarely found on common streaming services, such as those from the Criterion Collection.
I love my current job, but librarian has long been my dream job. Surrounded by books, providing access to information and the internet, hosting community events, and (saying the quiet part out loud) working in an anti-capitalist space is definitely my dream. (If you think “anti-capitalist” is too strong, consider how a book-selling capitalist might view the existence of libraries.)
Library of things
We need to expand the role of libraries in society. My county’s libraries are already doing so, launching libraries of things. It’s amazing. From snow shoes to sewing machines to Cards Against Humanity, the library of things makes available tools, technology, games, and gear that one may need from time to time, but rarely needs to own. It also allows for risk-free trial use of these objects, while the whole belongs to the community.
We’re learning a lot about our society right now…its vulnerabilities, its hidden possibilities, its limitations. Indeed, for all the value libraries continue to provide in this time, the current lack of access to the physical buildings (providing shelter, internet access, and safety, among other things) further demonstrates the indispensable role of libraries in our society.
I think we’re finding the logic of libraries should be extended to other aspects of our lives. Education, the foundation of a logic of libraries, is integral to combatting inequality, as conveyed in Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology:
Not only is educational equality the biggest factor in economic development (more so than property rights, [Piketty] argues), the sharp division between graduates and non-graduates produced political schisms that, by the 1990s, had left the working class electorally homeless.—The Guardian
Perhaps we should treat our full-range of formal educational institutions as we do libraries…free access to everyone. After all, access to education is a powerful equalizer (and, as it happens, an economic driver). But let’s not stop there…libraries have much more to teach us than is contained in the books on the shelves. Libraries are a model for how we build a better society.