Public libraries can provide a gateway to a wider world, whether a beginning reader, a new resident in a new country, a job seeker, or a retiree looking for new challenges. Today’s libraries provide more than reading materials on loan; they provide endless opportunities for all their patrons. Limiting individuals’ access to what they may enjoy, learn, or explore violates a basic tenet of American society – freedom.
The Eugene Public Library, built in 1906 as a Carnegie Library, was only a couple of blocks from my Catholic elementary school, so it was an easy walk for a fourth grader to visit after classes. The classic structure loomed large on a busy downtown corner; the children’s section was downstairs, perhaps a little dark but never scary or intimidating. I loved to read, and the library shelves provided many more titles than our nascent home library did. I remember favorites like Nancy Drew, but also a lot of biographies of children who became famous. One was “Ben Franklin, Printer’s Boy,” published by Bobbs-Merrill in a familiar orange binding that was the hallmark of the children’s series. I don’t recall many biographies of girls who grew up to be famous in that series, but the opportunity to bury one’s nose in a book in a quiet library was one that my friends and I treasured. Biographies still are my favorite read.
Nearly 2,000 Carnegie libraries were built across the country, funded by Scottish-American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, to make libraries available and open to the public. Until Carnegie’s donations, most libraries were privately owned and operated, and open only to the wealthy elite. After more than 50 years, the original Eugene library was replaced a few blocks further away by a modern structure with lots of glass and open reading space. After another 50 years, a third replacement library, with a large children’s area, was built in 2010, coincidentally across the street from my now demolished elementary school.
Across the city, another library played a large role in my education, as I worked my way through college as a student assistant at the University of Oregon Library, a magnificent classical brick structure built in 1937 on the main campus quad. Working at the circulation desk and shelving books in the stacks opened new worlds to me, and I admit to sometimes dawdling over a book before putting it in its proper place in the Dewey decimal system. The heft of a book, the tactile feel of the paper and the binding, and the aroma of old leather and aged pages sometimes are treasured by bibliophiles as much as what is written on the pages themselves. So many books, so many choices, so little time.
It’s that freedom of choice, or lack of it, that troubles this library and book lover today. Growing up, no one ever told me I couldn’t check out a particular book or learn more about a particular subject that interested me. I never needed a note from my parents, and my biggest fear was paying a fine for an overdue book, not fear of what I might be reading. Libraries open the doors of opportunity for everyone, and libraries are welcoming to everyone, whether a first-time visitor seeking a picture book, a chiseled veteran looking for a vintage history of some long-forgotten battle, or a student just browsing to find something of particular interest. A picture book, a war history, a student quest – all are choices to be made, and no one person or group should have the right to censor or make choices for others. Andrew Carnegie’s choice was to make libraries, and the collections within them, available to a broader public. Those doors must remain open to all, and let patrons freely choose what they want to read, enjoy or examine.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at email@example.com.