Remember when you were twelve, and you promised your mother you’d wait here after school until she or your father left work to pick you up? As soon as you entered the building, a no-nonsense, bespectacled woman in her early fifties sitting at a large desk under a sign marked “REFERENCE” motioned to you to settle down and be quiet. Later, after you sat down in the children’s section, she showed up at your table with inviting but challenging books a tad beyond your reading level. She exhorted you to look through them once you finished your homework.
After you thumbed through these special books, you grew restless, violated protocol, and began wandering in the adult parts of the building among the “stacks.” You arbitrarily went from one section of books to the other, randomly skimming a a book describing periods of history you never learned about in school, a novel with occasional four-letter “naughty words,” and a book about extinct species like the Eastern Hare Wallaby and the Dodo.
If a friend from school happened to spot you and shout out to you, the bespectacled lady from REFERENCE rushed up to both of you and let you know that if she heard one more loud outburst from either of you, she would demand that both of you leave. She reminded you that you both were in a quiet place, one where serious people came to learn and do research. You were, in other words, in a public library.
Fast-forward thirty-five years. The foundation of the library building is in serious need of repair — but no one is doing anything about it. The annual book budget of the library hasn't increased in at least twenty-five years. The bespectacled reference librarian and self-appointed matriarch and literature instructor was replaced years ago by a nerdy type half her age, a “kid” sporting the official title “Learning Center Administrator.”
A proposal has been put in front of city council to tear down the library building and build a small strip mall in its place. The odds are that the proposal will go through, because nobody in the community seems to object. After all, the public library is soon to go the way of the dodo.
It seems unreasonable to expect the public library to survive the advent of computers in general and Google in particular. Even the august New York Public Library has succumbed to bibliographical imperative by posting a wealth of new resources online.
Whether we like it or not, books — those glorious physical objects with all their signs of wear and musty smells — have serious limitations in the Internet age.
Still, how sad it’s become to lose so many librarians — those proxy parents and teachers who introduced us to good books and ingenious ways to find them when we were kids! And who better to have kept us and our children, once curious learners, from morphing into disaffected mall brats?