Notes of a Binge Thinker

Thoughts from NTLP's Executive Director

In Praise of Public Libraries

This month, I will be focusing on the following question for my Identity Crisis Series:  the Library’s role as the great equalizer.  The library’s greatest value-add?  I have always felt that the greatest value a library brings to the table for a community is the fact it is open for anyone to use.  Anyone can find any information held within its walls.  It is a place where we can engage our thirst for knowledge to be civic citizens for our communities.  Where anyone is welcomed despite their income level or beliefs.  In my research to find articles to back up this belief, I came across this blog entry by Sandra Beasley, a poet located in Washington D.C.  Although, the library does not speak directly to the issue at hand, I thought it was beautifully written and reminded me of why I fell in love with libraries as a child.  It is definitely worth a few minute of your time.

Some of my favorite quotes:

Every writer begins as a reader, and every reader benefits from the code of readership learned in public libraries. These lessons are found not on the page—or in the page’s electronic equivalent—but in the experience of sharing shelves in a public space.

For starters: where else do you learn to pick a title using the rule of thumb?

I mean actual thumbs, the thumbs of readers who came before you. In libraries we recognize the judgment of touch; the best books are usually in the shabbiest shape. Every dog-eared corner marks a moment worth returning to. Every splotch of soy sauce is a medal of honor. Every creased binding proves hours spent using one hand to Xerox, or iron, or whatever the day required, while clutching in the other hand a story that could not be put down. When I first began browsing my way through the science fiction stacks, I didn’t choose books that looked like pristine runway models. I chose the grizzled field veterans. That’s how I came to Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Arthur C. Clarke.


Consider this my equivalent of a field-to-table eating philosophy: I believe selecting a book should flow, seamlessly, into reading it. Once you sever the act of acquisition from the act of consumption, you’ve ruined the integrity of the product. A book that goes unread is a corpse of paper. Authors, of all people, should know better. Yet we’re often the worst perpetrators of bibliocide.

Library users observe the natural order. The system’s defining characteristic, the due date, is as compelling as it is simple. Purchasing a book feels like an end; checking one out is a beginning, a firing of the starter pistol from which we race to finish in the time allotted. I remember days when I didn’t even make it out the front doors of Tysons-Pimmit Regional before curling up in a beanbag chair, in the kids’ nook between the windows and the guinea pig cage, and turning to page one.

I miss reading with that kind of urgency. I miss taking responsibility for the decision to not read a book, rather than slip-sliding into the excuse of “one of these days,” days that soon add up to months. There’s a reason why people return overdue library books decades after the fact. The consequence lingers. The decision should matter.


In walking away from the checkout counter with a book, we have one more unique lesson waiting for us. For many, this proves to be our first engagement with civic duty. A library card is a social pact; something of value, placed in your hands based on no more than a legal address and a baseline of trust.

Well done, Sandra!

What do you think?  Do you think libraries are the great equalizer?


Written by amwlkaw

February 1, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Posted in Misc

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