On Libraries

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me: I absolutely love the library. Sometimes it strikes me just how much of an incredible social good public libraries are, how lucky we are for such a concept to exist and for it to have lasted so solidly all these years. Think about it – a free service which is available to everyone that provides nearly unlimited entertainment, enrichment, education. (It also blows my mind to think about how many materials would be in the library if their entire inventory was in the building – if no books were taken out, all of them arrayed on the shelves, how packed would the place be!) These days, the entertainment industry is one of the most profitable out there, willing to go to great lengths to make a buck. We are forced to pay ridiculous amounts of money to see a film projected for one time only while surrounded by tons of strangers who may or may not ruin the experience for us. Netflix, Spotify, Youtube, and similar services provide some modicum of entertainment- and media-sharing service at low to no cost, but there are plenty of limitations to the size, quality, depth, and breadth of their catalogs, not to mention the fact that you need an internet connection and a computer to access them in the first place.

The education industry isn’t much better, with colleges and universities (American ones at least) charging their students what equates to a middle class person’s annual salary for a service that our national dialogue insists is necessary to achieving the American dream. Post-secondary education is supposed to enhance critical thinking skills, prepare young adults for careers, and provide them with experiences to launch them into successful lives, but it also leaves many of them in insurmountable debt with unmarketable or impractical degrees in subjects that could have been mastered just as easily for free via self-guided reading. The piece of paper attained at the end of a four year education holds way too much weight in society, in my humble opinion, since it signifies more about a student’s social class standing than their intelligence or knowledge base.

But we can satisfy our needs for plot, story, character, knowledge, theory, and thought at no cost in every community. We can expand our minds on our own time without paying a penny of tuition (think Good Will Hunting).

Without a doubt, I would be flat broke if I had to pay for the countless books I’ve read courtesy of my local library. In considering this, I feel nothing but the deepest gratitude for those brilliant souls who insisted on instituting the public library way back when. This incredibly powerful and valuable social institution allows me, at absolutely no cost, to do the things I love most in the world: to read, to enter another world, to engage with a story, to stir my mind.

In this day and age, if the concept of the library had never previously existed, if it was only being suggested for the first time that we create a free book and media lending service, I am extremely confident that the public library scheme would not be implemented. Our national values are so misplaced, so profit-driven and individualistic, failing to see the vast benefits of providing people with certain basic social goods and services. And this fills me with great sadness (and the desire to give my local library a huge hug) but it also leads me to wonder if the future of the public library truly is in danger. It seems so anathema to what many political leaders value, I fear that it may become a more serious target of their budget-cutting and profit-prioritizing in years to come, especially as forms of media beyond the type so associated with brick and mortar libraries become increasingly valued over paperbacks. These fears may be totally unfounded in my lifetime – I really haven’t done the proper research on how imminent the end of the library may be if it is in fact a true likelihood – but I did some digging and found more than a few articles that piqued my interest on this topic. For further reading, check out the links below.

The Week: What the ‘death of the library’ means for the future of books: An interesting read on the importance of physical libraries as social meeting spaces and the site of helpful, brilliant librarians. Plus a smattering of library history launched off of Tim Worstall’s horrendous recommendation that everyone be given a Kindle with unlimited subscriptions so we can shut libraries down (has he seen the bad publicity e-reading before bed has gotten lately???)

Slate: What will become of the library? – An overview of the burning of the Library of Alexandria and other historical instances of biblioclasm as they relate to our modern-day predicament. Also looks at trends and changes in the form and function of libraries, including the fascinating Snead Bookshelf Company’s design of library shelving in which the shelves themselves are load-bearing such that their removal would literally compromise the structure of library buildings.

Knight Foundation: Future of Libraries – Interviews with library directors regarding how they are transforming their services to fit the needs of the modern world and what they envision the future role of libraries will become.

Go to Hellman: Are public libraries in a death spiral? – In response to library budget cuts and the suggestion of limiting library hours in 2010, a fellow blogger argues for enhancing the service and programming aspect of the local library, an aspect of the brick and mortar institution that online resources cannot replace.

On Visiting Winterthur

Taking full advantage of a day off for Good Friday, my mom and I visited the Winterthur estate in the Brandywine Valley of Delaware. Originally the home of Henry Francis du Pont, the property is over 100 acres large and boasts a museum, garden, and library. My main attraction was the grounds, consisting of a sprawling 60 acre naturalistic garden which models the way that the decorative plants, shrubs, and trees contained therein would arrange themselves if found in nature. The photos below are my attempt at capturing a portion of the early springtime beauty to be found on the gorgeous property. My mother and I took countless pictures of majestic magnolia trees, paper-thin pink azaleas, brilliant yellow branches of forsythia, delicate white snowdrops, and a whole host of tiny buds just starting to bloom. Even at $20 a pop just to enter the grounds without a museum tour, the garden is such a sight to behold that it makes the property worth a visit.

Although we didn’t tour the museum this time, the history of the building is what made most of an impression on me. Originally a much smaller home for the du Pont family occupying the property, eventually it grew to be an unimaginable 9-story, 175-room home. Today the house is occupied by the Winterthur museum, showcasing decorative arts and galleries of textiles, ceramics, antique furniture, and more.

As we approached the home, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles which provided a portrait of an incomparably rich American family, the Siegel’s, in their attempt to build the States’ largest house, modeled after Versailles. The sheer enormity of 175 rooms rings as rather wasteful to me. Obviously the du Ponts lived in a vastly different time, but the inequality inherent in a world where homes such as this one and the one which the Siegel family aimed to build exist is impossible to ignore. The fact that any family has the ability to be so over-housed while others have no homes whatsoever or live in properties that are falling down around them makes me unspeakably frustrated and angry. As my mom pointed out, at least the du Pont estate opens this home up to the public, however this comes at a price of $30 per ticket for the museum tour.

We can fawn over the wealth and property of others all we like, but doing so ultimately serves as a stamp of approval from society when it comes to vast income inequality. I would rather see Winterthur as a true relic of the past, a picture of exorbitant wealth that a universal middle class could visit (for free! or at least at a much lower ticket cost) with a sense of wonder since no such grand displays of money are to be found among modern men.

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On Dogearers

I’m a self-professed book worm, but I stand apart from a majority of bibliophiles in one respect – dog-earring pages. I’ve heard countless people revile the dog-earrer, the person who, by turning down the corner of a page, marks the whole beautiful book, renders its pristine perfection obsolete. I, for one, would like to make an argument to the contrary.

I ear-mark pages like no one else I know. I don’t like to mar my books with notes in the margins unless they’re for strictly academic purposes. Instead most of the thoughts that a particular volume generates in my mind are likely to find life on a blog post, within the pages of a notebook, or in a Word document filed away on my computer. But while it is highly unlikely that you’ll find me notating the margins of library books, I love to revisit passages that were particularly well-put, enlightening, or poignant. A well-phrased sentence is to one of the highest forms of art and I have a profound appreciation for this type of accomplishment. So I dog-ear the pages containing noteworthy passages in order to allow myself the opportunity to revisit these words again and again.

I have plenty of books on my bookshelf that are particularly thick at the corners from folding and prodding – and I like them that way. A well-worn book is as comforting to me as a warm fire around the holidays. I find great beauty in the ways a book can wear its love, especially when that expression of love was demonstrated by a reader other than myself. And this is why I love dog-earred library books. I love to imagine who was the previous reader and what made them fold down the corner of a particular page with such care. Were they, like me, the type of reader to fold important passages in lieu of annotating a volume that did not belong to them? Or did they simply use the ear-mark as a sort of bookmark, a method of picking up exactly where they left off? And if so, why this particular point – were they growing bored with the story or was it simply time to make dinner, answer a phone call, or doze off for the night?

To some, these ponderings probably sound like a waste of time, if not entirely antiquated in a day and age when libraries are increasingly unpopular and more words than ever are printed on screens rather than tangible pages. But I hope that at least a small few of you out there will understand what I mean. Maybe you hate dog-earrers (sorry!) but maybe you can appreciate a well-loved book, the musty smell of   old volumes and the struggle of deciphering a stranger’s long-ago notes in the margin. Maybe you have a love of words and find strength, joy, and clarity in revisiting them again and again, as do I. If nothing else, I hope that those anti-dog-earrers out there can recognize my behavior as a sign of love and affection, of being engaged and provoked by a book, rather than one done in ignorance and lending itself only to imperfection.