Going to the Library
Text By Robert E. Hood Illustration by Marvin Friedman
Illustration by Marvin Friedman
Excitement, surprises, and new directions can be found at the public library - where all you need to be welcome is a sense of wonder and a simple card with your name on it.
If you crank up your memory, you may recall your first visit to a public library, the day you signed up for your very own library card. If you were just a child, acquiring that card was a significant moment in your life, a rite of passage into the adult world.
How lucky are American children. Most of them have early access to the library, a palace of wonder and excitement, chock-full of books and with computers linked to the Internet.
In the United States, there are more than 15,000 such "palaces of equality," available to everybody. A source of education and entertainment, full of practical information and inspiration, the public library is as valuable as the gold in Fort Knox.
The impact of a home library
I grew up in a small village without a public library, not even a bookmobile. But I was lucky in an important respect: I was born into a reading family. The youngest of three children, I was 9 years younger than my brother and 11 years younger than my sister.
Books were family staples, given as presents by parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts. And I inherited the books of my siblings and year by year added to them.
Most of these books, other than the Bible and current best sellers, occupied a closet behind the dining room. There I entered the world of the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Frank Merriwell (yes, I met Nancy Drew as well). Soon I was riding the purple sage with the cowboys and outlaws of Zane Grey and going to bat with the baseball stars of John Tunis.
I realize now how fortunate I was to have a little home library. Many of my boyhood friends had no such resource. The sons and daughters of first-generation immigrants, they grew up in families in which books were scarce and English was spoken haltingly in the home.
It saddened me to remember some of my buddies dropping out of school at age 16 to work and contribute to the family coffers. Their parents expected it. Soon these boys would be swallowed up in the military, serving in World War II and never getting their high school diploma.
Captured by Ernest Hemingway
Although I have spent most of my life as a writer and magazine editor, I had never set foot inside a public library until after World War II. I was 21 and a freshman in college when I visited a public library in Johnson City, N.Y.
It was in a small brick building with two columns framing its door. From the outside it looked drab and insignificant. But once I crossed the threshold, it seemed to grow larger and more impressive. Since then I have always had the feeling that libraries are much larger on the inside than they are on the outside. Perhaps it is because the fullness of books includes the entire universe of man.
The library in that small town suggested the splendor of ancient cathedrals. The lushness and silence were inspiring. The rows and rows of books, the titles on their spines beckoning, rising from floor to ceiling, seemed to encompass the entire world of art and science and of fact and fable.
I was researching a term paper on sports when I came across a book by Ernest Hemingway called Winner Take Nothing. It seemed like an appropriate title until I started to read it, standing among the stacks enveloped in stillness.
Of course, it wasn't a sports book; it was a collection of powerful, probing short stories by an American master.
Although I'd heard of Hemingway from an uncle who'd fought in World War I and admired A Farewell to Arms, I'd never read his stuff. Winner Take Nothing took me prisoner.
I was drawn back to the little public library week after week, bingeing on its stock of Hemingway until the entire supply was exhausted - all the novels and short stories and books on bull fighting and big game hunting.
One book remained, an early satire, The Torrents of Spring, which had to be obtained through interlibrary loan from a distant city, either from Buffalo or New York City.
Although I couldn't have known it at the time, my early intoxication with Hemingway, unleashed in a small-town library, was the beginning of my career as a writer and editor. Years later, at New York University, I would write my master's thesis: "Ernest Hemingway: The Sportsman's Credo."
Direction and inspiration
My experience wasn't unique. Many people have found a sense of direction as well as inspiration in libraries.
Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, used the library as an escape hatch. In response to a questionnaire from the American Library Association on how famous Americans felt libraries affected their lives, she stated:
"I wasn't exactly happy growing up in Peoria, Ill., in the 1930s as a bright, young Jewish girl. I mispronounced long words because I'd only read, not heard, them. Anti-Semitism was rife. Books were my escape and opened my way to the wider world that I now move in and perhaps have made wider for others."
Responding to the same questionnaire, Attorney General Janet Reno said: "When I was a young girl, I went to an old library in Coral Gables, Fla., to read my favorite books, Mary Poppins and The Wind in the Willows. They helped instill in me a sense of wonder, humor, and the spirit of life."
In the United States libraries represent the spirit and the essence of democracy, and they are one of the few institutions in which free information is guaranteed to all. Think of all the immigrants who have learned America's language and customs by going to its libraries.
Where dreams are drafted
Truly, wonders, surprises, and new directions can be found in a public
library, sometimes accidentally but more often on purpose.
For it is where dreams are drafted. Writers do their research and even put their stories on paper or into a word processor in libraries. Many novels and biographies have been written there. Scientists develop new theories on the origin of the universe in library reading rooms. Philosophers ponder the great questions of human existence. New businesses are conceived.
In the 1930s, an amateur inventor named Chester Carlson spent hours and hours in the public library in New York City, trying to realize a dream. He wanted to develop a machine that would turn out copies in rapid-fire order.
So, every day after his work as a patent lawyer, Carlson went to the library and read scientific material about photoconductivity.
After months of study, Chester Carlson developed a method and patented it, only to see it turned down by numerous companies. It wasn't until 1959 that his machine went on the market. The company and the copier became known as Xerox. People who bought its stock then are now riding in Lincoln Town Cars and wintering in Palm Springs.
But Chester Carlson needed the public library to turn his dream into reality.
Libraries wouldn't exist if it weren't for human need - the need to know, to record that knowledge, and to store it where people can find it.
Greeks and Romans
Public libraries go back a long way. The ancient Greeks kept records on papyrus rolls, clay tablets, and parchment books. In about 305 B.C., they built a library in Alexandria, Egypt, for the purpose of storing every scroll thought to be in existence.
A hundred years later another great library was established at Pergamum. After that city fell to the Romans, Mark Antony was said to have removed 200,000 scrolls to give to Cleopatra to replace those lost in the burning of Alexandria.
The first state-supported system of public libraries was established in Rome by Emperor Augustus. In 28 B.C., Augustus built a public library in the Temple of Apollo. Later emperors extended the public library system throughout Italy, France, Spain, Cyprus, Africa, and into Asia Minor.
Rome proper became a city of libraries, a system which collapsed with the fall of the empire. In the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, libraries were scarce, manuscripts and books being found only in universities and monasteries.
With the Renaissance and Reformation came an explosion of knowledge. Two new technologies - the manufacturing of paper and the invention of the printing press - triggered a wave of books just before the colonization of America.
Libraries in America
In the new American colony, books were in the hands of wealthy individuals, some of them with a charitable nature. Most notable was the Rev. John Harvard, who donated his collection of 280 books and an endowment to a new school in the Massachusetts Colony which, in appreciation, promptly adopted his name.
Harvard's philanthropy started a healthy trend.
By the late 18th century, nine other colleges were able to open because of the gifts of private book collections. Next came the "subscription library," straight from the brain of an ingenious colonist, Ben Franklin.
In 1731, Franklin convinced 50 of his friends to chip in to a pool of money to buy books for all. The idea was popular and spread to other colonies. Around 1800, the concept of building libraries out of tax money caught on, and by the end of the 19th century, 3,000 communities had their own libraries.
In 1881, Andrew Carnegie began a program that would do more than anything or anybody to expand the library system in the United States. The founder of U.S. Steel, he had made a fortune.
He believed that "a man who dies rich, dies disgraced." He set out to help ambitious poor people through a mammoth library program, pledging money to any community that agreed to build a library.
For each member of such a community, he allocated $2 toward a library. Over the years, he was responsible for building 1,681 libraries in the United States and an additional 800 around the world, an unparalleled act of philanthropy.
A changing mission
The mission of contemporary libraries - and of librarians - has changed dramatically in the past few years. They do more than catalogue books and answer questions. They understand CD-ROMs and PCs and field tricky questions with the flick of a finger.
Today's library may offer special equipment to serve the disabled, literacy programs for adults, and special events for latchkey kids.
But grand as contemporary libraries are, they won't make obsolete their old-fashioned counterparts. The old cathedral-like libraries of stacked books will live on to serve the public as will their peripatetic cousins, the bookmobiles.
The library, whether it be on a dirt road or a superhighway, is a congenial home for book-lovers. And remember, to be welcome there, all you need is a sense of wonder and a simple card with your name on it.
Editor emeritus of Scouting and Boys' Life magazines, Robert Hood lives in Woodstock, N.Y.
Libraries Are Booming
Although American public libraries often struggle to make ends meet, they are enjoying a renaissance in the late 1990s.
Why the boom? One reason is the need for more and more information. Another is the Internet.
"With Internet access, the use of print material has gone way up," says Toni Carbo, past executive director of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. According to Carbo, print and Internet are "complementary technologies.''
New central libraries are opening in many big cities. In the past seven years, new libraries have been opened in Phoenix, San Antonio, Denver, and Chicago.
In April 1996, San Francisco opened a main library at a cost of $137.5 million, and a massive crowd flocked to its inaugural. A seven-story building, it is bright and well lit and contains 300 computer terminals with access to the Internet, data bases, and catalogues. In addition to these 300 browsing stations, another 1,100 people can plug in their own laptops. Rare volumes now are available on the screen. And there also is a children's area with computers on kid-size tables.
In Los Angeles, the main library was renovated in 1993 to include a large underground area. "It is probably one of the best times for libraries," says Susan Goldberg Kent, the city librarian.
Vancouver, British Columbia, has a new $74 million library, which includes space for day care, retail sales, galleries, and promenades. And since going online, the Cleveland library has escalated its circulation by 15 percent. People are dialing the main library to locate books and to arrange for their pickup at branch libraries.
A Place for Children
Across the nation, children are flocking to libraries, sometimes wearing pajamas and carrying stuffed animals.
There they can read or be read to by librarians. Or they can sing songs, play games, and watch shows featuring musicians or magicians. It's an educational and entertainment haven.
Many children need a place to go. As Elizabeth Martinez, past executive director of the American Library Association, says, "What better spot than the library, a learning center where they can find caring adults and endless books?"
In cities with populations of 100,000 and above, 80 percent of the libraries contain computers and CD-ROM data bases. And kids are tapping in, using encyclopedias, reading, listening, watching, and even touching images on the screen.
In Providence, R.I., kids touch colorful pictures - a variety of pictures, of pets and wild animals and the like. They can call up a computer map to show them the locations of books.
In Columbia, Mo., youngsters link up with their counterparts in other states, collecting news and fresh views for special projects. Once mastered, these new pictorial systems provide a surge of power for young egos.
Some new libraries are providing services for the homeless. They offer access from outside the building to restrooms. Inside, there are special dayrooms where street people can rest. Guards enforce rules prohibiting sleeping among the stacks and bringing in shopping carts.
October 1999 Table of Contents
Copyright © 1999 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.
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