Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

Publications

The “New and Improved” Library

Res Publica

July 2001

by Jennifer Beck

I remember many people and activities from my childhood, but among the most vivid are my visits to the library. My grandparents lived only a short walk from the town library, so I would venture out early on Saturdays and spend nearly the entire morning sifting through the books. I would gather up the ones that I’d chosen and then hurry back so that I could immediately begin to read one of my newly found treasures. Of course, as a child, these books generally dealt with serious subjects: thrillers I read for the sheer exhilaration of scaring myself silly, or books about girls like me in towns like mine who thought about things in almost the same way as I did. In short, the library never ceased to fulfill my expectations.

As I grew older, I began to realize that I needed more depth to the things I read. I wanted books that taught me about ideas and how to think for myself; I hungered for wisdom about life and all its mysteries. After high school I found myself in the Ashbrook program, which satisfies my hunger for challenging, informative, and entertaining texts. As a college student, I get the chance daily to sink my teeth into books like The Great Gatsby, For Whom the Bell Tolls, or maybe even Crime and Punishment (but I must admit that my interest in this book is at its greatest only when I’m feeling especially ambitious). In short, my love for books has increasingly developed as my life has progressed.

It makes sense, then, that when I discovered my hometown planned to spend over $1 million dollars to renovate and triple the size of the one and only library, I was overjoyed! My heart raced at the thought of all the books that would find a home within its walls. I was pleased, furthermore, that the community shared my eager anticipation. Everyone I encountered was itching with excitement for the construction to end and the reading to begin.

The day we had all been waiting for finally arrived. Being here at school, I was not able to be present for the christening of this magnificent new addition to our town. When I finally did get the chance to go home, what I found inside the new library was something I had never expected or dreamed I would see…

Instead of a room reserved just for reading, I found a state-of-the-art café. Instead of racks of encyclopedias, I found a play station for toddlers, complete with things to climb, buttons to push, and blocks for building. Instead of the endless shelves of books by every author and on every subject imaginable, I found endless desks with computers smartly poised atop them, ready and waiting for eager young students to plop down in front of them and excitedly check their email accounts. I had entered the library, excited to begin my search for a classic—something by Hemingway or Jane Austen perhaps. Instead, I found daycare, McDonald’s Playland, and an Internet Café all wrapped in one.

I approached a clerk at the front desk to learn where the books were, since I was in a library. I can still remember her easy smile as she answered my inquiry, as she greeted me with slight but polite surprise that I wasn’t smitten with the grandeur of this library masterpiece. She told me that these books were not present within our newly renovated and triple-sized library; she did inform me, though, that if I would like, they could be brought in from another library within ten working days.

Clearly my definition and my town’s definition of "library" differ. I’m from the old school of thought that, when we hear "library," we think of the Latin term from which our word originated: "liber," which means "book." We envision a place that boasts shelf after shelf of books. A person can get anything and everything he would ever want to read at a library—or so one would expect. I could not help but think, and this thought still is with me, that resorting to another town with a smaller library for these pieces of literature is ludicrous. After all, shouldn’t the renovation and expansion of a library result in more books and more space to hold them?

In a recent article in my hometown’s newspaper, the reason for the library expansion was to help our little community bring in more people and help out all the quaint little businesses lining Main Street. Now, I must note here that my town is commonly referred to as the "canoe capital of Ohio." People come from all over as a result, including from other states and other countries! They come to take a relaxing ride down the river and to escape the fast-paced lifestyle of the city. It is solely for this activity that they pack their coolers, pile entirely too much luggage into their mini-vans, and drag their reluctant children with them to a small, wooded, and otherwise boring town in central Ohio.

Based on this simple yet undisputed fact, it seems perfectly obvious to me that no tourist will come to my town for our library. However, in the unlikely event that some tourist would go to a small village’s library in order to read a good book in a peaceful setting, he would be quite out of luck in my town. In our library, all one can do is drink cappuccino and get some e-shopping out of the way.

If it were up to me, our new library would have the authors I consider virtuosos ready and available to read at all times. I feel that a library is not a library if it has neither books nor if it is missing those written by the authors with whom a willing participant can explore the far reaches of the world and every subject under the sun. The old library helped nurture and encourage my childhood love and desire for books and the knowledge they contain. The library was synonymous with excitement and opportunity, so it seemed only logical to me that a bigger and better library would further my search for great literature and a deeper understanding of my world.

However, I now realize that this is not the case. While I believe a library should be so full of books that there is very little room left over for anything else, many others in my town do not share this ideal. We all agree that a library should have newspapers, encyclopedias, and card catalogs. The chasm that separates us, unfortunately, signifies the difference of opinion we have in what role the library should play in education and the quest for knowledge. I place emphasis on books and the wisdom they can pass down to us about our past and the nature of our society and ourselves. However, the individuals behind this great endeavor emphasize commercial value and an attractive appearance. In short, I believe that when a library ceases to have more books, especially those written by the truly great authors, than it does cups of coffee or computers, there is a problem indeed.

Jennifer Beck is a junior from Perrysville, Ohio, majoring in English and minoring in political science.

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