Tuesday, March 16, 2010

As a bibliophile, I fail

I was over on Salon reading Martha Nichols' "The Death of the Library Book" and it got me thinking...I am, and always have been, an obsessive reader--novels, magazines, newspapers, cereal boxes, you name it. Being in the company of stacks of published material gives me a tingle. Being in the company of other folks enjoying being in the company of stacks of published material gives me an even bigger tingle. You would think, then, that I would be just the sort of person to haunt her local library. I'm not. In fact, it's been more than 15 years since I regularly spent time in my local library.

From my school days through my early 20s, I regularly carted home arm loads of books from the library. I am old enough for the card catalog to have been crucial for any sort of school term paper writing. But I also used my local information repository for personal research on all sorts of topics: new hobbies, historical events, celebrity crushes. A few hours spent in the library, browsing and studying--that's a pretty fun Saturday afternoon for a bookworm like me. Today, as an amateur family historian, libraries are integral to my research. I could never piece together all the stories of my ancestors without access to the volumes of records housed in state libraries and historical centers.

But in the last several years, unless I am doing genealogical work or donating books, I haven't visited the library. That makes me a little sad.

While writing this, I realized how many of those days I spent in the resource room of my county library were devoted to research on whatever topic was currently commanding my attention. Like a lot of things, perhaps my dwindling library-going habits can be blamed on the Internets. I can Google "how to create Bantu knots" or "Idris Elba" or "Egypt and cats" (like I did just last night) and gain enough information to keep my "knows a little about lot" brain happy. No need for microfiche and I can wear my raggedy pajama bottoms without drawing stares.

I have always been a book buyer. Even when I frequented the library, I purchased my favorite books, new bestsellers and the like. As a kid, I had my own copies of Judy Blume's oeuvre. When I really love a story, I need to own it. I used the library to mine for new authors, old titles I may have missed and randomness that caught my eye. I was never that enamored of reading books with worn covers, smoky-smelling pages and odd stains. I like crisp pages and uncracked spines. And I shamefully admit to falling under the thrall of big, book stores--all those pretty, clean covers; and imported magazines; odd titles; coffee nooks and overstuffed chairs. Better yet, I enjoyed those neighborhood, mom-and-pop book stores with the cramped shelves and wood floors. Once I gained disposable income enough to rack up literary impulse buys without fear of financial ruin, I pretty much moved on from book borrowing. Now, as the owner of a Kindle, I'm not spending very much time in book stores either.

My community has a wonderful, nearly-new, well-used library. The children in my life use it. I have tried to embrace it, but ultimately it doesn't meet my desires. I have easier ways of doing quick research online at home. Its book, music and film collections don't reflect my tastes. I am impatient and don't like waiting for things on interlibrary loan. I hate having to finish a book by the return date. And I hate not owning my books.

And I know that my point of view is terribly privileged. My middle classness makes it possible for me to quibble about tears on book covers and pout about long waits for something I have to read now. I am fortunate to own more than one computer and wireless access to the Internet at my home. That is not the case for everyone.

Mzanthropy on my Twitter feed reminds: "The importance of public libraries cannot be overstated. Public libraries are essential to the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge and information. They also provide great community services such as literacy, tutoring and career development. We need to ensure that public libraries are properly funded so that everyone has free and open access to a variety of sources."

I wholeheartedly agree, which is why I feel like such an ass for not using my library system more. In an era of increasing anti-intellectualism and educational inequality, local libraries are like last bastions against rampant ignorance and class oppression. But some communities are reporting decreased usage of library facilities and with budget cuts, some areas are seeing local branches close. This is a perilous direction for our society, especially the under-served among us. And I can't help thinking that part of the blame for the situation lies with people like me who choose convenience, consumerism and yuppie ambiance over supporting important local services.


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