Sunday, February 24, 2019

August 29, 2014

Occasionally it occurs to me that not everyone is inured to the detailed workings of libraries. There are people out there, even ones who read my missives, who have not spent 20 years deep in the minutiae of library life, philosophy, politics, and operations. Whereas Jason Bourne may size up hundreds of details of risk in just the moment of entering a room, so I can walk into a library and sum up its collection, staff, and procedural limitations in mere seconds. Even not in a library I can give a nearly instantaneous general accounting of the reading materials in any room I'm in or have recently have been in just as Bourne can tell you where a gun is most likely to be hidden.

Because of this it can at times be difficult for me to imagine the confusion that people face in their encounters with libraries. Culturally, we the people are most acquainted with commercial institutions. We know what it means to be lured and sold to. We understand the spaces related to that. We also have an acquaintance with mystifying, machine like bureaucracies that insist on our participation and resent us at the same time. We even have a fair amount of peculiar overlap between the two. But the library is an unfamiliar creature to us. 

The library is a nearly imaginary glimpse of a reality in which we, collectively, as people, are not assholes.

Yes, that is a pungent way of putting it, but the collective endeavors of humanity, while presenting some amazing and much vaunted exceptions, are probably best described by the word "sick". I don't mean "sick" in the contemporary slang sense of "Wow, that nollie 360 heelflip was sick!", but more in the conventional usage of "Wait, they were put to death for skateboarding? But that's sick!" We the people hold within us the power to make a paradise, a wonderland, a garden. But unfortunately we have found thumbscrews irresistible and it's all sort of run away with us. 

But there stands the library, maybe a million of them in the world, like something from a really lovely passage in an Ursula K. LeGuin novel where you think "What a beautiful idea. If only something like that really existed in the world." Well, this one does, but it is so sweet hearted and visionary and better than us that it can be a trifle difficult to navigate. Plus it is entirely run by people who mostly live in that culture of marketing and bureaucracy and so perches precariously on the edge of them, ever in danger, ever compromising, ever trying to hang on.

Your library is real so it looks like the world. It is just another building, another government entitlement, a hard coded symbol of human culture. It is just a place in your city. It is not so fancy, or beautiful, usually. A lot of these books smell. Some of the workers there are friendly. Some are not. The library may or may not have what you wanted today. It might be noisy. It might be closed. It might let you down.

So it may be hard for you to see what is at hand when you go to a library. But I am a student of them, and I am here to tell you.

When you walk into the library, any open, free library, anywhere on earth, on any day at all, you walk into a miracle.