Saturday, April 9, 2011

In Praise of Public Libraries

We awake this morning to news that there will be no government shut down, at least not right now.  Of course, this deal affects the budget that should have been passed before last October, when the fiscal year started.  I dread the bombastics sure to come as lawmakers turn their attention to the next fiscal year's budget.

I kept hearing lots of folks talking about taxes, but I can't help but notice that I'm taxed at the lowest rate I've ever been taxed.  I know people who rant and rave about the rich avoiding paying their fair share of taxes, but frankly, I'm not paying much tax either, and I assure you it's not because I'm rich and not because I have a lot of tax shelters.

In fact, I wouldn't mind paying more if the money went to things like public libraries.  I mention these items on the birthday of the first library to be supported by taxpayer funds.  In 1833, in Peterborough, New Hampshire, citizens voted to set aside a portion of their tax money to buy books--and thus was born a great American tradition.

It's an intriguing question:  which is the greatest of the contributions that the U.S. has given the world.  Some might say jazz.  Some might offer the quilt.  Some might go for a loftier idea and say that the idea of democracy is uniquely American and our greatest gift to the world.

But I could make a strong case for the idea of the public library.  Before the Internet became so widespread, the public library was the only way to access information easily and cheaply.  You can't get more cheap than free! 

I remember the first time I tried to go to the library at the University of Miami without my faculty ID, and I was denied entrance.  I felt outrage at the idea of a private library.  Oh, sure, in theory, I get it, but emotionally, I felt ashamed, almost, and denied of something essential.  I hungered for entrance!

One of my earliest memories is of my mom riding her bike to the public library with me behind her in the baby seat.  For a long time, my family had one car, which my dad drove to work. 

And later, I remember the Montgomery (Alabama) public library, which let adults check out as many books as they liked, but children were limited to 10.  My mom and I worked out a deal:  she'd check out as many books for me as I wanted on her card.

I was a voracious reader and always grateful for the library which meant  that I didn't have to buy books.  And of course, the library has always had more than books.  As poor graduate students, we had access to lots of movies (on VHS!), and the downtown Main library even had framed art which you could keep for a month, which we did.

I'm happy to pay for libraries and public education and police/fire protection and the upkeep of roads.  I'll even pay for weapons systems and multiple branches of the military, even though my younger self would be horrified at my complicity.  Once upon a time, I'd have wanted more say in the decision making process about how my tax money was spent, but now I hardly have time to do the shopping and the laundry, so I'll let the experts decide which weapons systems are best and which resources should be bought for the library.

I can't be the only one who feels this way--can I?  And yet, in all this budget bluster of the past week, I haven't heard many voices that match mine.  But I continue to be hopeful that I will.


Kathleen said...

Yay for libraries! (I might be singing another tune if they get rid of all the books. It's happening...)

Sandy Longhorn said...

Yay for public libraries!!!!

Beth said...

Whenever the subject of politics is brought up I'm reminded of how ignorant I am, so I tend to stay silent.

I do hope that public libraries stay open for a long, long time. The feel of a physical book is so underrated.