I remember the plastic smell of my first library card. My sister helped me spell my name in childish scrawl on the strip on the backside. “C-R-Y-,” letter by letter I painstakingly worked my way to the L before realizing this little strip was grossly inadequate for the next nine letters of my last name. There were at least two other Crystals in town. How would the librarian know this card was mine and not Crystal Whitman’s or Crystal Owen’s?
Weighing my options, I settled for an initial instead. I was pretty sure I was the only Crystal S. for miles. With the final dot it was as good as an official binding contract. That green card granted me access to anything in the library system. For years I frequented the library, participating in story time, perusing the titles on the shelves and taking books home to devour. In the simplicity of childhood my biggest struggle was agonizing over which book to read first.
So dismay doesn’t quite describe what I felt to learn that my hometown is losing its library. A pillar of the community, a place where anyone can have access to the knowledge sitting on the shelves. Not having a library is like not having a school. It’s like a step back into the dark ages where the only people with power and wealth, the only ones capable of growth and enlightenment, are the ones who have access to books.
And here’s the crazy part. If it were only my hometown library closing its doors there would be two other libraries within driving distance. A pain for the locals to drive the extra fifteen minutes, but at least they’d still have access to free books. But no. This is a county wide dilemma. In the next few months every library in Douglas County will close its doors due to lack of funding. An entire county of people in rural Oregon, an area which already struggles economically, will no longer have access to free books.
I’ve spent the last several weeks trying to research what went wrong. It blows my mind that I could only find two articles in the local newspaper that even discussed the issue. Two! Was there something more important going on in smalltown Oregon? Why wasn’t this front page news? Repeatedly? Folks, libraries are not obsolete. That’s like saying we don’t need schools because we have Google. E-readers have not killed the need for actual physical books. And a good library doesn’t deal in only actual physical books. Libraries utilize as many tools as possible in order to provide a public space for learning and growing. I’ve talked to locals who have their own ideas about why the funding seems to have dried up. But I think my favorite explanation comes from an actual librarian from the Myrtle Creek branch. (*Heads up…there’s a bleeped out swear in the beginning. But let’s be honest, losing my library would make this Mormon girl curse too.)
For weeks I’ve tried articulating just what a library means to its community in hopes of inspiring the masses to fight harder to keep their library doors open. I considered citing study after study that show just how important reading is for brain development. I considered waxing nostalgic about what the library has meant to me personally throughout my life, hoping to tug on a few heartstrings. I considered listing the programs the library runs which are constantly changing according to local needs.
I’ve tried to articulate all of those things. But each time it just all feels so inadequate. Because there’s a simple truth at the heart of the matter. You either get the value of public libraries and will fight tooth and nail to keep them in your community. Or you don’t.