Reading is not just a nice thing to do. It’s how we help give our children the best possible start in life. This quote by Hillary Clinton during a recent speech at the American Libraries Conference got me thinking.
The Public Library is a Treasure Trove of Knowledge
Laura Bush once referred to libraries as “community treasure chests, loaded with a wealth of information available to everyone equally”. While this remains true today, technological advancements and budget restrictions contribute to a decrease in appreciation for these fundamental establishments. Over the last several months, I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time at the public library. Truth be told, it had been years since this avid reader and seasoned educator had been in one. As a classroom teacher, the public library was a frequent stop. Librarians became quick and cherished friends and countless hours were spent exploring the literature and materials that could enhance a student’s understanding and interest. Outside of work, however, I’d never really paused to appreciate everything these institutions have to offer.
Technology and the Internet as a Replacement
Somewhere along the way I fell into a mindset that public libraries served only as a place to bring small children for books, story time, author’s visits, or special programs. I would only enter to briefly use a computer with internet access or enjoy a convenient meeting alternative when working on small group projects. I’d always bring my own books and materials, head directly to a meeting room to join others, and make a swift exit once my allotted time or task was complete. Although a constant reader, for years, anything I’ve wanted to read has been purchased online or in store. And only websites were used as additional sources for research.
Rediscovering the Public Library
While visiting the public library this time around, things were different. Meeting rooms were often unavailable when needed or required a wait, allowing me to take in my surroundings. I was pleased and inspired by what I saw. People of all ages and backgrounds were reading for pleasure in the middle of the day. They were seated on benches and tables, enjoying periodicals, purchasing breakfast or snacks, exploring interactive exhibits, admiring artwork, and attending large group events. Upcoming community functions were prominently posted throughout the building. Awestruck young children comfortably moved about, encouraged and supported by the positive reception from patrons and staff.
Albert Einstein once said, “The only thing you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.” That statement remains relevant today. Public libraries are neighborhood centers where people come together to appreciate the arts, develop a sense of community, and engage in face to face interaction. Most regularly host musicians, storytellers, lecturers, discussion groups, theater and movie nights as well as art, photography, and technology exhibits for the public. They also house artifacts and records specific to their local community.
The abundance of resources and events public libraries offer can inspire a love of learning and sense of wonder. Do you remember receiving your first library card? How about exploring the stacks? Selecting books? Convince a parent that you didn’t need to put anything back and would read everything before its due date? The first feelings of independence? I witnessed similar experiences numerous times while watching other learners explore the public library.
The Reliability of Knowledge
When looking for information, a quick internet search can yield a number of results. However, the validity of what’s found can often be uncertain. Anonymity can mean manufactured stories, fictional online profiles or comments, and even vitriol. In this day and age it is often challenging to separate fact from fiction. That distinction is much clearer in a library. The classification system and reference materials, historical documents, letters, periodicals, magazines and other publications provide facts and evidence essential to understanding our past, present, and future. Described as “defenders of truth and reason” at a recent American Library Association’s Conference, they remain a reliable and invaluable way to learn about our world.
Taking children to the library to find books or attend events is important. Letting them see the adults in their lives do the same can help make it a lifelong habit. Given time, it might even restore a sense of wonder and love of learning to everyone involved. I am reminded why Laura Bush said the most important thing in her wallet is her library card. That is the gift of the public library.
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