“Home is where they have to let you in,” the old saying goes, to which one might add, “just like the public library.”
As I make plans to return to the United States this summer, a visit that will include a variety of states and stops, big cities and small towns, and probably a few surprises—lost luggage? tornadoes? who knows?—I am sure of one thing: friendly public libraries await me, and they are one of the pleasures of going home.
I work in France. Like many expatriates, I am often asked what I miss most about American culture. Near the top of the list (just above baseball) are the public libraries. French culture has many merits and there are many charming individual French librarians but, to be frank, their libraries aren’t in the same league. We might as well be talking about French baseball.
Or, to compare from the other perspective: how many French people in America can be truly happy with the bread, knowing what they’ve left behind?
Libraries, bread: these are home truths.
For me, it started early. I grew up on a farm in rural Iowa, and every Saturday morning my family would pile into the car and drive to town. For the adults, this trip meant a visit to the bank and grocery store; for the kids, a chance to spend pocket change on candy and enjoy the novelty of walking on paved sidewalks, which felt positively cosmopolitan. “Meet up at the library,” we were told. This red-brick Carnegie library was our shared, final destination, from which we emerged with armloads of books, a week’s worth of reading, till our next venture into town.
A lost era? Perhaps. But it touches the present in many ways. I’m sure that I wouldn’t have become a writer if not for these trips to the library to restore ourselves, to take down books from shelves and make friends with distant strangers.
Nowadays there’s sometimes a short wait to get access to an Internet terminal, but the public library wifi is always free. Much of my time in America is spent on the road, vacationing with my foreign-born wife to national parks and various cities and many obscure attractions. In addition to my hometown public library, we frequent other libraries, bouncing from state to state and treating each library, big or small, as somehow part of my birthright.
This is perhaps presumptuous but it’s a pleasing arrangement, and one that the weary traveler might appreciate more than the local patron who has come to take a place for granted. How wonderful it is to know that there is a cool spot waiting down the road in a strange town you’ve never seen, a refuge where you will be treated with courtesy, given reliable local information about how to get around. How convenient the glories of clean bathrooms and water fountains and other amenities. If you like, you can linger, and lose yourself in the mind of someone else. (I remember reading Truman Capote’s A Tree of the Night and Other Stories on one trip in 1998 that spanned six states, pulling it down from various shelves and resuming my reading where I had last left off.) Meet up at the library. I’m still doing it, after all these years. It is the American oasis.
But an oasis doesn’t tend itself, no more than French bread bakes itself. Both represent the hands-on effort of the present to apply the acquired lessons of the past. In sum, the expression of a culture.
Hard economic times will always test a culture’s resilience. This summer, I fear that some of my stops along the road will find me peering into library windows from the outside, and tugging on locked doors. (It already happened last year.)
This is a shame, and I’m not talking only of my personal inconvenience. Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate how, in addition to odd travelers like myself, the library also welcomes the homeless, the unemployed, the elderly, and parents with small children seeking a safe haven. They, too, meet up at the library. And I wonder: where will they go now?
Of course, this question is not news to librarians who, in addition to their roles of managing information and media as a public service, are also unacknowledged social workers. They respond to needs that can’t be measured in terms of books and DVDs checked out, or number of computer uses. Lately I read much about the debate concerning e-books—an important issue, yes—but the question foremost in my mind remains: where will people go?
The oasis belongs to everyone. It’s not easy to manage, in the current economic environment, but that truth is only further evidence of how much we need the library. The America that I love to return to would seem parched without it.
Charles Holdefer teaches at the University of Poitiers, France. His most recent novel is Back in the Game. Opinion pieces for Backtalk should be 850-900 words and submitted to Michael Kelley at firstname.lastname@example.org