Are Public Libraries And Book Stores Relevant?

In the era of widespread access to electronic information it is tempting to dismiss libraries and physical bookstores as historical relics.  

First, I must confess that I am biased in favor of public libraries and bookstores.  I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where we were blessed to have the Carnegie Library system.  The main library, at least at that time, was directly across the street from the University of Pittsburgh and had at least four floors, with the top floor accessible only by climbing a hidden set of stairs.  Up in that “secret place” were books such as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and other such research publications.  More often than not someone chased me off the floor, the pretext being that I was far too young to understand and appreciate the content of the books in that section of the library.  But just being there was enough to spark my interest in science.

I would go downstairs and a kindly woman would direct me to  books more “appropriate” to my age.  From a less than perfect memory I recall the first book I ever checked out of the library on my own being A Coffin For Demetrius by Eric Ambler.  I was caught in a net that I have yet to shake off.

Libraries and bookstores expose us to the world of ideas whether or not we understand them or not.  We gain exposure to worlds beyond our imaginations, beyond our dreams and yes beyond even our understanding.  It happens because those ideas reside in books, which are in the room with us even if we are unaware of their presence. 

In the mid 70’s I walked into a bookstore having no idea what I wanted to read.  The man behind the counter politely suggested Lucy, the story of an Ethiopian fossil over 3 million years that could bridge the evolutionary gap between apes and humans.  My interest in human evolution has not yet waned.

Yes, certainly, it’s all electronically available over the Internet.   Just log on and find what you want.  But that begs the question as to just what do you want?  Are we destined to leave it to Google and Yahoo to guide our understanding of life?  Electronically suggested reading lists doom us to learning the same set of facts  presented in different formats.

Learning beyond our comfort zones, becoming involved with ideas and concepts that are “beyond us”, stretching our imaginations, requires nurturing of the type that humans give one to another.  What better place is there to find the human element than in a library or a bookstore?  Do you agree?  Let me hear your thoughts.




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2 responses to “Are Public Libraries And Book Stores Relevant?

  1. Your description of books and libraries brings back memories. When I was 11, my parents had a small used-and antique shop. They would have my sister work the store on the weekends and they would hit the auctions and rummage sales. One time they bought several boxes of Readers Digest dating back to around 1910 with the latest issue dated around 1948. I was a voracious reader and persuaded my folks to let me take the magazines home. Over the course of the next year or so I read every copy from cover to cover. There were more than a few raised eyebrows around my elders when I started telling jokes I had read or using new words. It was a great time in my life. Our town was lucky enough to be gifted with a Carnegie Library, not as grand as the one of your youth but every bit as exciting. Downstairs, next to the children’s Library was a room full of long wooden racks filled with newspapers dating back to the towns founding. I can’t remember the first book I checked out but it was probably the latest Dr. Seuss book The library always ordered several copies of the new titles as they were published. I still visit it whenever I am in town. And, not surprisingly, I mainly write about history.

  2. What memories this stirs up. Like both of you, libraries and bookstores have been an important part of my life.

    I remember sneaking out of school at lunch one day to ride my bike to the library. I must have been seven or eight years old. While at the library I checked out a book on penguins, I don’t know why. On the way back I took my school lunch money into the Choo Choo Diner. Little did my young mind realize as I walked in that school lunches were much less expensive than real restaurant meals. When I looked at the menu prices I realized about all I had money for was a coke. I quickly downed that while reading my book. When I returned to school I thought I couldn’t bring the book inside or I would have been caught for skipping out of school. I hid the book and the playground and worried all afternoon the book would be gone! It was there.

    Then we moved to a rural town where the library was very humble. The collection was so small that we were limited to two books at a time. It was also a long bicycle ride away from my house. I would make two or three trips a day during summer to read and return. Hardy Boy mysteries and chess books were a favorite. Soon the librarian gave me special permission to check out four books. That was such a special day.

    When Marvilyn and I are travelling on our summer vacations, we seek out the out of the way book stores and always stop. We enjoy novels written by, and about, the local community. We have discovered so many wonderful stories that way. No matter where we retire to, our wish is for a great library and a local bookstore that knows our taste.

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