Why Do Libraries Bring Out The Best in Us?

A young JCLI volunteer (my daughter!) protesting the library's closure.

A young JCLI volunteer (my daughter!) protesting the library’s closure.

I don’t want to bore you with the story of my local library—I’ve told it a gajillion times. If you haven’t read it, you can do so here or here (I’m quite proud of this library, as you can tell!).

But I will tell you that even after the roller coaster ride of emotions I’ve been on with that crazy, beautiful library, nothing prepared me for the despair I’d feel when, on the morning of February 23, 2016, the Cave Junction branch of the library was vandalized.

It was a slap in the face.

After everything we’d gone through—the work and worry, the tears and triumphs—to have the library torn apart as though it meant nothing? To have the very door of the library—which had become a symbol for our movement, for our single-minded insistence on reopening—smashed into tiny shards of glass?

It was a punch in the gut.

But then something amazing happened.

Word got out about what had happened and we were inundated with offers of help. Our community rallied around us. A local diner, The Powederhorn Cafe, held a “Pi Day” fundraiser (with pie and coffee and proceeds going to the library). Oregon Public Broadcasting covered the story and addressed the lack of law enforcement that might mean nobody would have to answer for the crime. People and businesses donated money for a reward to find the perpetrators. Superhero librarians in other parts of the state offered help and held fundraisers. And good-hearted people from around the country donated money and, more importantly, sent their kind words and support.

The library was insured, of course, but on our shoestring budget, even a $5,000 deductible is a big chunk of change. With all of the support and donations, our library met that goal and topped it, raising over $11,000.

I felt like the Grinch, but in a good way. My heart grew by three sizes that week.

And I began wondering: what is it about libraries that brings out the best in us?

I think the very idea of a library assumes that people are basically honest. If a person borrows a book (or magazine, or CD, or DVD), they will bring it back for somebody else to use. Sure, some people will bring back materials late (lord knows I’m one of the worst offenders here—I could probably fund a full day of operation on my overdue fines alone). They may even abuse the system by stealing books (but those people are few and far between). But at its very core, the library assumes a social contract, an ethos of paying it forward.

Libraries exist because we want to share the hard work of the mind, the growth and expansion that comes from deep thought and wide experience. We want to hand over new discoveries that can be enhanced by diverse perspectives, and we want to hand down knowledge to the next generation so that we and they can benefit. Together.

These words feel small and paltry when compared to the potential of the library. This short movie based on the wonderful book The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, on the other hand, says far more eloquently what I wish to say…and it says it with no words at all.

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2 Comments

Filed under Libraries

2 responses to “Why Do Libraries Bring Out The Best in Us?

  1. Well said, Jennifer… But even stealing a book is telling: a thief that reads! (Still, a swimming pool in each branch would be nice… miniature golf?)

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