The Free Public Library!

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! The public library is free, and believe it or not, it’s not even guarded! That’s right ladies and gentlemen of all ages and all shapes and sizes! You can just walk right into that incredibly valuable building and just take whatever priceless knowledge you want without even paying for it! Yup! You can just take it! You don’t even have to wait for the drawbridge to drop to storm this castle! Just rush inside like a knight in shining armor and take whatever books and whatever knowledge that you want!

It’s so amazing that I’m going to have to say it again! The public library is free, and it will give you an incredibly valuable education, as well as anything else your little heart may desire. You can actually walk in there and spend as much time as you want, and then walk out as a higher quality person. Can you believe that?

I feel so lucky to have known about our free public library system for the last twenty-five-years. And during that time I have never stopped sipping from the fountain of knowledge and potential power that has been made so easily available to all of us. And come to think of it now, I can’t see myself ever stopping the winning habit of sucking up everything I can from this country’s library system.

Hmm… Imagine another twenty-five-years of this country’s public library system feeding my brain and quenching my thirst for knowledge and potential power. Wow! Now I’m imagining fifty more years of feeding my brain and quenching my thirst… It’s mind-boggling, wouldn’t you agree? Nothing is impossible with sustained effort over time in a library.

How could any one of us not take advantage of how easy the public library system has made it to be a lifelong learner? Just look at all that information floating in the middle of all of those neatly stacked aisles of books!

Now teens and even tweens, go learn, lead, and lay the way to a better world for all of us. Remember, the public library is free and it will give you an incredibly valuable education. But this will only happen if you stop sitting on your hands and get up and get your feet moving toward your public library; and don’t forget your library card! And once again, thanks for all that you do, and all that you will do…

Reflections on the New York Public Library or An Ode to Public Institutions

Anyone who has visited the New York Public Library understands the most basic elements of what is amazing about it. When you walk in, you feel both grand and small. This is a magnificent edifice dedicated to knowledge, ideas, culture, and creativity, which are all-as Maria notes-limitless. At this same time, this is a public space, it is there to serve you and it was created in your honor.

This has always inspired me when I walk into the library. But this time, a few more reflections are in order.

This city honors libraries.

The buildings that make up a city determine the character of a city. It is significant that one of the most admired buildings in Manhattan is a library.

What does it mean to honor libraries? I don’t need to reinvent the wheel here, there are quotes carved into the wall all over the library. To honor libraries is to honor democracy. It is to honor the equality of citizens-to respect and indeed create a meritocracy. It is to honor the role of knowledge in society. It is to honor human potential.

This library is a demonstration that New York City honors these ideals, however imperfect we may be in fully realizing them.

Libraries are both the past and the future

Although its architecture is very classic, when the New York Public Library was built, it was a model of innovation. The system of book retrieval is an illustrative example. Being a research library, many of the NYPL’s books are not in continuous demand. Therefore most books are not stored in the open spaces of the library, but rather between floors and below the basement where they are amassed in shelf after shelf of books. A patron would find the book she wanted in the catalogue and write it down on a retrieval slip. The retrieval slip would then be put into a capsule which would be transported to the appropriate floor via what was then a modern vacuum technology. A porter would receive the capsule, and fetch the book. This system had the added benefit of giving rise to an urban legend: that the teams retrieving books travel around the stacks on roller skates (not true, I’m sorry to report).

As you might expect, the NYPL is very different now than it was when it opened. It was one of the first libraries to digitize its catalogue, maintaining a wall of books filled with the old cards, for preservation purposes. We saw books being moved off-site, as the library relocates much of its collection to a warehouse in New Jersey. The books will still be available, but they will have to be transported from the warehouse upon request. While this move was spurred by changes in the ways the New Yorkers access information-and in particular a decreased demand for books, it caused a lot of controversy in New York, as people lamented the end of the book.

Of course, the NYPL has not abandoned the book. But this story does give rise to an interesting conundrum that libraries face. Although the library is a public institution, people’s relationship with it is deeply personal. The library is thus in a tricky place, it has to both continually innovate to be at the cutting edge, but it is also the vanguard of our shared culture, which can spill over into nostalgia.

In Busia, we get to be cutting edge now. We get to start from scratch and think about all the things that Busia needs, scope out all of the best ideas that are out there, and build based on that. We’ll have a citizen science center, a co-working space, and an oral history lab. But, once built, the job of being innovative is not done-it’s a continual process to not be a relic.

Libraries are multi-use spaces

I can’t even list all of the different activities we saw going on at the library. We visited the map room, the reading rooms, the microfiche room, and the children’s section (Winne the Pooh!). We stepped over art students making sketches of the building interior, we breezed through one of the two brilliant exhibitions curated by the library’s staff, we tip-toed through the library’s rooms for research fellows. Each of these places were full of human beings, doing-I don’t know what. Perhaps one of them was there to look online for a job, and maybe one was researching a story from their family history. I’m sure one of them was there to read poetry, or look at old maps, and I’m equally sure that someone was there simply because she had no place else to go. Perhaps someone is on the verge of curing cancer, or writing their first novel. Each one was in their own universe of thought, of ideas, of creation.

In the international development community, when we talk about participatory or community-based development, I’m not sure why libraries aren’t at the tip of our tongues. They are the ultimate expression of people defining and meeting their own needs.

Libraries are a civic duty

New York Public Library was built with private money and it is largely maintained with private money, as are many libraries in this country.

Team Maria’s Libraries has had the conversation about private donations many times, including doing a two month research project on it this summer. We’ve experimented with different models of garnering funds from the community, and nothing has really taken hold quite yet. Maria had a lot of questions for our noble tour guide about this aspect of things-especially about how the trustees work. Of course people have their own interests for being on a library board, but overall, supporting libraries is firmly in the sphere of civic duty.

Another way to look at Maria’s “libraries are like an ocean” comment would be to consider the intricate collection of actors required to make a library run and be relevant-although perhaps we should call it an ecosystem. Private citizens, government, technical experts in library science, architecture, and technology, and of course the library users-all of these groups need to be in balance, to work in separate spheres but in concert with each other. This is a library.

In Conclusion

The tour of the NYPL is greatly inspiring; it was also both intimidating and affirming. While Maria has been working for 12 years and Maria’s Libraries has been working for 4 years towards the completion of the library in Busia, we continually realize that we’re only just beginning. Since ML has been involved, we’ve spent two years working out our relationship with the government, two years settling the property rights issues on the plot of library land, and now we’ve begun our negotiation process with the architects around the building plans. We have yet to identify our local patron (if anyone reading this is the Brooke Astor of Western Kenya, email me!), and identifying what is needed in the full library collection is not even on the table yet. This process is slow and sometimes feels like a series of hurdles. And this it will continue to be, for as long as the library is around.

Loving Libraries – Why Using Your Public Library Should Be Habit-Forming

There are public library users of all levels: avid, frequent, sporadic, and absent. This article is for those who forget to use their local library system or don’t even have a library card. It is especially for those who have children or who want to be or are in business.

Public libraries are a treasure trove of free, already paid for, information and entertainment services. Here are some benefits that hopefully will rouse you to visit your public library to get a card if you don’t have one and to remember to use it. At a public library you can find:

1. Information on most any subject. If your library doesn’t have the book or material you need, it can bring it in for you from another library in the same system, or it may participate in a broader lending system.

2. Entertainment in the form of music CDs, cassettes, and movie DVDs. Recorded books make travel fly by, especially long driving trips.

3. Children’s entertainment and preparation for school learning through regular story time sessions and other special events provided for young children. These are especially valuable before and during the preschool years.

4. Motivating reading and writing programs for young people and adults. Book clubs/discussion groups, contests, and personal reading challenges (quantity and variety) occur throughout the year.

5. Special classes on a wide array of topics for business learning or personal growth in areas of special interests.

6. Resource librarians who can help search out the answers to your questions-your own personal advisers.

7. Meeting rooms for start-up businesses or for any need to meet with others to study or share information.

8. Materials to boost your career or business knowledge. How-to books can save real dollars over purchasing the advice and save time in not having to figure something out the hard way-on your own. A self-help book helped me prepare a case for small claims court. I felt completely organized and ready to present my case to the magistrate, and I won. The other party was unprepared and very weak.

9. Displays of artwork, historical pieces, and other subjects of interest.

10. A setting where manners and comfortable protocol still reign. In our chaotic world, libraries are still places of calm and respite. Librarians share knowledge freely and kindly.

Add words like free, no-charge, or complimentary to each of these ten items, and you will quickly see how much money you can save on an on-going basis by using this service you are entitled to use.

Libraries are gifts we give ourselves and our children. Libraries are community assets that give tirelessly for a small amount of tax money. Resolve to take your children and yourself much more often to your local library. If you have never been, go this week. Start and maintain a habit that will contribute to your well-being and nurture the foundation of the children you love.