Writers need libraries — and so do we all: a guest post by Nancy Lord

The political writer Joe Klein (Primary Colors) has written, “Libraries are places where we writers go after we die, if we’re lucky. We’re going to live on through libraries. But there is also something more. In addition to being a place that we go after we die, (if we are lucky,) libraries are also the place where a great many writers are born.”

This is certainly the case for me—the part about being born, though I also hope for the lucky part.I have so many fond memories from my childhood of the big old granite and marble Manchester NH public library and the “bookmobile” that brought its treasures right to my neighborhood. I didn’t know then that I would become a writer, but my library was without question the place that opened my mind to every sort of adventure and possibility.I loved to read, I learned about language and storytelling from reading, and it’s natural that I eventually wanted to emulate what seemed so essential and beautiful to me.

In Homer, we’re fortunate to have a new public library, three years old now. I say fortunate because it’s not something that just happened. The community had waited a long time for a new and larger building to replace the small one that had become not much more than a book warehouse, where you could go in, get a book, and leave, and where any new book meant an old book had to be removed to make room.

We were fortunate that a core group of citizens got together and launched a campaign to plan and fundraise for a new building and that we had city leaders—our library director, city manager, mayor, and council members—who supported the effort. We were fortunate that the economy was reasonably healthy at the time, and that the whole community (well, almost) backed the project, and that we got help from our elected officials at the federal and state level as well as government agencies and foundations (thanks, Rasmuson Foundation!)We now have a community building that’s way more than a book repository; it’s a center for learning and civic engagement, with access to multiple educational technologies and plenty of space for study and conversation.

In the course of being involved with our new library project, I heard a lot of library stories from people who stepped forward with their checkbooks and volunteerism.I heard from one woman that she’d practically grown up in a library because, in her childhood, it was the only safe place to be. I heard from a well-known artist that all his real education came from a library and that if it had not been there for him, he never would have made it through high school and would not have had any idea about what purpose he should find in life. I heard from adults who had learned to read, as adults, in libraries, and from people helped by librarians to find what they needed to fix their cars and their health.

Each of Alaska’s Writer Laureates is asked to have a “project” during his or her term, and so it was natural for me to focus on libraries. I’ve made a number of trips to communities now, where I visit libraries, do some kind of program there, and speak to library supporters about the Homer experience of planning and fundraising for a new library. I’ve found that many if not most public libraries in the state are outgrown and inadequate and that their communities are in various stages of planning for additions or new buildings. In sharing what I’ve learned, I emphasize that there is never a good time to fundraise for a new library (or anything else); you just have to decide to do it, plan carefully, have a core group of worker-bees, and then do it. One of the motivations for us in Homer was knowing that Haines had succeeded in building a new library. If they could do it, we could! In Alaska, of course, with our small population and lack of individual or even foundation wealth, no one expects private donors to fully fund anything. In Homer we raised an impressive amount of local money before taking our case to foundations and public entities, where we found a generous willingness to “partner” with us.

On my most recent “mini-tour,” in September I visited the community libraries in Kodiak, Sutton, Palmer, Wasilla, and Talkeetna. I also stopped in, just to take a look, at the Eagle River library (very new) and the Big Lake library (relatively new and being used as the design template for Mat-Su libraries to follow.) I’ve always had a high regard for library volunteers and professionals, but my appreciation is even higher after meeting so many kind and committed library people.

We library supporters face a number of myths that need constant correction. The big one is that libraries are irrelevant now that “everyone” has a computer and can Google anything he or she wants to know. This faulty argument misunderstands the role of modern libraries, which are not about looking in books for information, and are—just as Andrew Carnegie insisted—for everyone equally. Statistics from the American Library Association show that libraries are busier than ever. Nationwide, the number of people using libraries is up, participation in programs by both children and adults is up, and internet use is way up.

In the Kodiak library, two men were playing chess while others read newspapers in non-English languages and the computer stations were full. In Sutton, a mother read to a child in a comfy chair, in Wasilla someone was checking out movies, and in Talkeetna kids worked on their homework. In Eagle River I plugged in my laptop to check email. Back in Homer, a computer club meets, a knitting circle meets, and a book group is reading Asta in the Wings.

Driving back from Talkeetna, I was listening to the radio—I might have been listening to a book-on-tape from my library except that my car has no tape or CD player—and heard someone say, “It’s a good thing we already have public libraries. Can you imagine trying to get such an idea through Congress now?”

It’s a good thing we have our libraries, but we have to defend and support them always. As I write, the budget-cutting Homer City Council is preparing to close Homer’s new library on Mondays. But there’s a girl who needs a safe place to go on Mondays, and there’s a budding artist who might realize his gift. And there’s someone who just wants to borrow and read a book.

Nancy Lord is the Alaska State Writer and author, most recently, of Rock, Water, Wild.

1 thought on “Writers need libraries — and so do we all: a guest post by Nancy Lord”

  1. I've got an opinion and ready to share – I'm not so fond of libraries willy-nilly turning themselves into internet cafes. Well, without the cafe part.

    I've seen nice, small, local libraries and their librarians driven to silliness by such actions; the librarians complaining of having to become "internet police" for all the youngsters abusing internet privileges.

    Bring the books back to the libraries!

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