Dot Hutchison has worked in retail, taught at a Boy Scout camp, and fought in human combat chessboards, but she’s most grateful that she can finally call writing work. When not immersed in the worlds-between-pages, she can frequently be found dancing around like an idiot, tracing stories in the stars, or waiting for storms to roll in from the ocean. Her debut novel, A WOUNDED NAME, a modern retelling of HAMLET through Ophelia’s voice, is available now. Visit her online at www.dothutchison.com, @dothutchison on Twitter, or on Goodreads.
Like many prolific readers, libraries have always been a very significant part of my life. I thought librarians were the smartest people in the world. They knew EVERYTHING. Whenever I needed to know where something was, or what to try next, or even just bizarrely random factoids that made me want to read *gasp* non-fiction (which was a dirty word when I was younger), the librarians either knew it already or could easily find out. As far as I was concerned, the only things librarians were missing were the capes that could identify them as superheroes.
I definitely took that supergenius for granted when I was a kid. The idea that libraries could struggle for funding, could close, the fact that people could grow up without access to libraries, never even occurred to me. There are libraries all over the place in my county, all working together to get books to people no matter what branch is their ‘home’ branch. There is always something happening, some kind of event, some kind of gathering. The librarians are so actively engaged in making sure that what’s on the shelves reflects what people are looking for; if they don’t have it, they can try to get it. My optimistic, childhood brain could not begin to wrap itself around the idea that libraries could be endangered.
And why would it? I mean, libraries have been an essential part of our cultural awareness for thousands of years. They weren’t just repositories of knowledge, they were cultural safeguards. Long before the printed book, before the bound book, libraries held not just facts but beliefs– myths and religious views and laws could be found there, histories, the things that we use to define ourselves as different peoples, nations, or civilizations. Even before parchment, before scrolls, we scrawled in blood and ink on scraped hides and carved into stone or wax tablets in the hope of preserving something for future generations. We dreamed of making a mark. Even in the European Dark Ages, when few could read or write, when libraries were all but useless to the masses and even to most of the ruling classes, monasteries gathered information, painstakingly preserving and copying publications over into works of art. True, many of these volumes went through a rather unhealthy pruning at the hands of the church, but think about it for a moment: at a time when a minimal percentage of the population knew how to read, still we felt the need to gather and save information for a time when it could mean more. We hoard knowledge, rather literally, and always have. It’s an innate part of us. Libraries, like churches or palaces, win from us some of the most beautiful architecture through history. Seriously.
We seek to give beauty to the repositories of knowledge because of the esteem we have for what they hold.
The thing about libraries is that they’re not really something we grow out of. Grow away from? Sure. There are people in the world who have access to libraries and choose not to use them, and I pity these people. Libraries are some of the very few places that can mean as much to us as children as they do when we’re a hundred. And, the older we get, the more we’re able to get out of them.
After Krysta approached me about writing this post (Thanks, Krysta!), I swung by a couple of the library branches here in my county to explore a bit more, chatting with the librarians about the services they offer. I mean, we all know that libraries=books, but did you know that libraries:
- often serve as voting areas? Because they’re public access building, libraries are often selected as poll places for precincts, as well as homes for early voting. Because of this, the library can also help you register to vote.
- can help you apply for financial aid in many forms? It’s true! Most libraries educate their librarians and keep forms on hand for aid or relief in the form of welfare, food stamps, discounted insurance, or even FAFSA applications or tuition waivers.
- run language programs? Some of them actually hold classes to teach languages, with English as a Second Language dominating the schedules, while others act kind of like a dating service, matching volunteers to aid-seekers to help practice conversational skills and fluency.
- serve as community centers? Because libraries are so embedded in their neighborhoods, they often serve as gathering points to offer free workshops or classes, even things like Zumba or pilates! Depending on your area and the interests of your community, you have the chance to come across anything from taxidermy classes to bird identification.
- have free storytimes for kids? And not all of these are in the library itself. Many libraries partner with in-need communities to come out to the children, to expose them to books, to read to them, to talk to kids who might not have access to a library until they’re in school. Some of these off-site storytimes basically turn into tutoring sessions, taking the first steps to teaching children how to read and inspiring in them a love for reading than carry them to amazing places. They also have them at the libraries, sprawled out across colorful carpets. It’s hard to find something more heart-warming than a group of toddlers reciting along with their favorite picture book.
- run summer workshops for kids? My nearest branch is holding something called Lunch and Labs- every Thursday, they provide a lunch for every kid who shows up and then provides all the supplies and instructions to let the kids perform a science experiment. How freaking cool is that?
- host clubs and fan groups? If it’s a club, you can approach the library about signing out a reading room or meeting room to hold your gathering. On any given day in my county, you might find people gathered to play Magic: the Gathering, talk manga and anime, hold book clubs, writing groups, quilting bees, knitting circles, or even (I kid you not) Bronies. Yes, there are Brony chapters that meet up at libraries so guys can celebrate their mutual love of My Little Pony.
- offer basic computer classes? These can vary from “this is the on button; this is a mouse” to “Here’s how to use Word templates to make an awesome resume”. They’re not just teaching how to operate a computer, they’re also teaching how to really USE it. They offer assistance in making resumes, in teaching you how to search for jobs online. And, of course, they have computer stations spread through the building that are open access to anyone with a library card.
And, as we move deeper into the multimedia age, libraries are adapting to provide amazing service to its patrons. In addition to transferring books between branches (or even separate counties in some states!), most libraries now offer e-book lending, available through a free app that can be downloaded to pretty much any device. They offer audiobooks in three separate formats: CD, downloadable mp3, and playaways. You can check out music or movies. They have newspapers, magazines, city or county specific reference books. They can tailor language sections to the needs of the community- my branch is the only one in our county with a significant Chinese language section.
About an hour before Amazon emailed me about Kindle Unlimited, one of my friends wrote on my Facebook wall to check it out-wasn’t it amazing! And as I looked through the information, I’ll be honest, I kept thinking “This doesn’t get me anything my library card doesn’t get me.” And my library card is free. I know that’s not always the case; when I lived in Colorado, I paid eighteen dollars for my library card. (Totally worth it) But the convenience isn’t any different, really; there’s so much use I can make of my library card without ever leaving my house. Or, you know, getting dressed. The news about Kindle Unlimited actually made me really sad, because so many people are getting excited about it, like it’s this Brand New Thing! When the truth is, libraries have been around far longer than books.
Even before we had physical libraries, before the various systems of writing were invented, we had living libraries in the form of historians and oral tradition keepers- storytellers. For as long as humans have existed, we have gathered our knowledge into libraries for safekeeping.
Nowadays, a lot of libraries are struggling to stay open. They don’t have budgets to begin with, but as more and more people turn to programs like Kindle Unlimited (or Oyster, or whatever that other one is), the libraries are losing even more money, because they’re simply not being used the way they should be. Libraries offer us so much more than a way to read a book for free, and sadly, there are many, many people who won’t realize how valuable libraries are until we don’t have them anymore.
So support your local libraries! And if you have the time, find out what programs they have, and how you can volunteer or help. Don’t let our libraries close and fade.