What can I say? We’re library geeks. This stack is some of the materials Marion and I currently have checked out from the Chicago Public Library. By our standards, it’s a modest pile. Marion is a voracious reader; I’m a guy with good intentions. Inevitably, my eyes are bigger than my literary stomach, and many books return unopened. Again, what can I say?
We’ve always been library geeks. In St. Louis, librarians knew us and our children by name. We used to get invited to librarian-only parties. [To balance things out, I’d like to say here that we also used to get invited to staff-and-musician-only parties thrown by the crew of the Broadway Oyster Bar.] Daughter Claire has picked up the torch; she works in a library.
Growing up in St. Louis, I was blessed with access to an excellent library system [it was recently ranked second in the nation, in fact], and I discovered it early. Many of the city’s branch libraries were grand beaux arts structures, with ornate columns, profuse ornamentation, grand stone staircases and massive, heavy doors—especially to an eight-year-old on the skinny side. Beyond those heavy doors was a quiet sanctuary, elegant, ordered, cool in the summer and invitingly warm in the winter. And books. Mountains of them. Miles of them. All free for the taking—well, the borrowing. Even though I didn’t know the term business model back then, I wondered how they could possibly do this. Obviously, I was equally naive regarding taxes.
I only knew that they somehow did manage to do it and that, with my library card, I was in the club.
Anytime you have a great idea like this, everyone wants to take credit for it. As Wikipedia tells us, “Many claims have been made for the title of ‘first public library’ for various libraries in various countries, with at least some of the confusion arising from differing interpretations of what should be considered a true ‘public library’.” In ancient Rome, Greek and Roman scrolls were available to readers in the Roman baths; but these weren’t lending libraries—scrolls couldn’t be checked out.
In the United States, Boston lays claim to the first town library, established in 1636. But most give credit to Benjamin Franklin for creating the first lending library. You have to wonder where he found the time. One of the nation’s founding fathers, he was also a printer, an author, satirist, politician, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman and diplomat.
For all the press Gutenberg gets for his printing press and how it brought books and knowledge to the masses, books were still very expensive, especially in America, and not readily available even to those of moderate means. In 1731, Franklin and a group of friends formed the Library Company of Philadelphia. It was set up as a subscription library; individuals bought shares, and the money was used to buy books. Members could then borrow books, making it possibly the first lending library. It is still in existence today, now operating as an independent, non-profit research library.
But with the Internet, do libraries still matter? Do books, for that matter? One word answer: Amazon.com. One of the most successful businesses on the whole worldwide web is a book store. And yes, the marketing of books is changing. Life for independent booksellers like our friend Jun, who runs the wonderful Foto-Grafix Books in San Francisco, is more challenging than ever. But drop in any book store, independent or big box chain, and you’ll find people hungry for books. You’ll find us there too. Some books you just need to own, to flip through again and again. To just take pleasure in knowing that you own it.
You don’t have to own everything, though. In this acquisitive culture, I’m not sure everyone gets that. Our good friend Laura told us of discussing books at work. When she mentioned finding something at the library, her colleagues laughed. Not derisively—just in that confused, it-would-never-occur-to-me sort of way.
But that’s the beauty of libraries. They’re a great place to kick the tires on a new author or be pleasantly surprised by something that catches your eye as you get the library crick in your neck, scanning titles sideways. There’s also almost a perverse anti-ownership pleasure in knowing that others have read this book before you, and many more will read it after you do, part shared experience, part recycling smugness.
So, yeah, we’re library geeks. And perhaps geekiest of all, on more library visits than not, I silently thank Ben Franklin.