Originally published on Medium
“I had a place to stay, but the library kept me warm.” The woman in front of the green screen looked off to the side and broke down in tears at this point, closing her video interview on her relationship with her neighborhood library. She moved to San Francisco in hopes of starting over, and the library was the first place to welcome her. She relied on her branch for books, as well as applying to online job postings, frequenting public lectures or poetry readings, and attending mayoral debates.
Her story was recorded among others as part of a people’s history of the American library, and the professor writing it came to give a talk to a room in which everybody seemed to have come straight out of Mrs. Doubtfire. After crawling through thousands of digitized newspaper records and recorded interviews, he let us peek into what public libraries mean from the standpoint of the people who use them.
Growing up in Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr. would pop up at the counter and start reciting a couplet (“When I dipt into the future far as human eye could see”), stopping halfway so the librarian would finish the rest (“Saw the Vision of the world and all the wonder that would be”). The Wright Brothers documented how an ornithology textbook pushed them to study flight and wonder when humans could start taking after birds. 14 year-old President Obama researched his father’s Kenyan heritage and Mau Mau involvement with the his librarian’s help in Hawai’i. Thomas Edison would sneak out of his lab to unwind in the municipal library. Harry Truman claims to have read every single thing in his childhood library by the time he was 13, encyclopedias included. Everybody has some kind of relationship with their library.
A few more anecdotes (the speaker was writing a people’s history, after all): the Jackson 5 (before they were the Jackson 5) competed at a talent show in an Indiana library. (They didn’t win, but little Michael was the crowd favorite.) Ronald Reagan devoured Horatio Alger as a child (which explains a lot of things), Pete Seeger credits his social awakening to a book he read as a seven year-old about a boy who runs away from an abusive household and is adopted by a Native American reservation family, and Oprah grew up with “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and the comfort that Francie Nolan’s tenement life wasn’t so far removed from hers.
Sonia Sotomayor’s favorite was the Nancy Drew series, as it also was for Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. During the talk, I started to think there was some cultural conspiracy against the Nancy Drew books, listening to how one of the San Francisco public libraries refused to carry Nancy Drew, resulting in community protests that ended when an especially concerned citizen threatened to “alphabetize [the manager’s] internal organs” if she didn’t call in a shipment of the books right then. Nancy Drew gave young women who didn’t care about Prince Charming an alternative; these books gave them an independent, young, intelligent, and female role model to grow up with, but for a strange time, they appeared on the San Francisco and New York public library blacklists. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case.
Fiction as a genre became popular because of the public library. When Benjamin Franklin started the first American library in Philadelphia, the first batch of books consisted solely of technical and agrarian manuals, in keeping with Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack vision of an American built upon ingenuity and craftsmanship. However, as the audience for libraries and their access grew, the mechanics of supply and demand dictated that fiction of all sorts came to readily populate the shelves of libraries and bookstores alike. (Interestingly enough, 95% of romance genre sales are via e-book; the speaker suggested that was because people didn’t want other people to know what they were reading, but take of that what you will.)
It’s only ugly when curators try to segregate fiction, as with the case of Nancy Drew. Stories in all forms are important: we heard another interview from a gay Southeast Asian immigrant who relied on the zines and pulp fiction in the back shelves to teach him how to survive in America. His story is a testimonial to the importance of public access. The boundaries of access shift, often for the better. Queer literature is no longer considered pornographic, for instance. Birmingham (formerly “Bombingham”) holds one of the largest public collections of civil rights memorabilia and literature. What used to be one of the poorest and most segregated towns in Illinois built three libraries to prove that they too deserved to read. The homeless man curling up with a newspaper, taking his time (because every minute inside is a minute away from the blizzard), isn’t a problem as much as the library can be a solution.
Stories are central to humanity. Books, especially when it comes to having lots of books in one place, provide a shared collective mythos for readers. These “commonplace stories” build community around shared values and offer a loose canon of popular culture and knowledge that’s constantly shifting in relation to person, place, and time. We saw a photograph from the day Order of the Phoenix became available at the Toledo county library. The lobby, awash with people, was the definition of diversity. “In no holy book did God say what a library should look like. People determine what their libraries should look like,” the speaker said, citing a social neuroscience paper on the “village effect” of public spaces. Libraries were never just places to store books; they’re places were kids learn to read, where adults remember their creativity, and where anybody can find shelter from the rain or snow. He concluded that barely any social science research exists on exactly what libraries do for the health of the people and communities using them, but across the 17,000+ public libraries that exist in the United States, it’s not hard to start imagining.
¹ A 2013 Pew research study reported that almost every public institution or service associated with the government plummeted in public approval in the last few decades. The only exceptions, in addition to public libraries, were emergency first responders and the military. People like their libraries, because unlike in the courts, you don’t ever have to do jury duty in a library.
² I love libraries to the extent of having gotten locked in one over the weekend and having had no choice but to escape through the basement tunnels. At this point, I’ve written more words here than I’ll need for either of my two essays due next week, but unpacking my relationship toward libraries, whether it’s the coziness of the libraries I’ve called home back in California or the dizzying redefinition of everything libraries are starting to become, is something that deserves more writing.