Libraries are a Bold Expression of the American Dream

“In the library I felt better, words you could trust and look at till you understood them, they couldn’t change half way through a sentence like people.”-Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

I discovered via The Discarded Image (and a nice article there on libraries) that it is National Library Week.  As it is also National Poetry Month the best way to celebrate would be to go to your local library and check out a book by Natasha Trethewey.  (You did know she was the current U.S. Poet Laureate, right?)

The Discarded Image article, written by Mindy Rice Withrow, gives three reasons to support public libraries.  I would like to add one more:  It is in the library that you find the finest example of the American Dream, the ideal that every person regardless of his or her background or birth should have the tools to obtain a higher status, to learn, to invent, to create, to change the world.

The American dream is alive in libraries. The library is an idealistic expression of our value of true meritocracy, knowledge made available to anyone who wants it.No PhD required, no bank account, no credit score, only a curious mind.

Praise be to whatever higher power you believe in that the great thoughts of antiquity, high culture, modern information are accessible to anyone with a mind and a will to seek it out.
Glory hallelujah. Hosanna in the highest.

Public libraries, as we know them, are a distinctly American invention. There were manuscript archives before that, of course, but there was little need for libraries for the masses. The masses could not read, and there weren’t that many books to go around anyway. Until the middle of the 15th century, Europe was said to have produced no more than 1,000 hand-written books a year.

Medieval archives chained their books to desks like banks do with the pens. The idea that you might take a book home to read was impossible. Books, painstakingly reproduced by clerics with quills, were simply too valuable.

The printing press, of course, changed things a bit. In 1950, Europe produced 120,000 books, meaning a library that would once have taken a century to assemble could be collected in 10 months. Ten years later, the output of books had risen to 1,000 titles a day. In 1995, Book Industry Trends reported almost 2.3 billion books were sold in the previous year. There are now more than 1,000,000 books titles in print and the United States alone produces about 65,000 new titles a year.

It was that radical Benjamin Franklin who came up with the notion of the lending library. His model was a bit different than the modern library. It was a “social library,” which was a kind of book club. (They didn’t send you books you didn’t want if you failed to mail a card back.) You paid to join, but then you got to share books with a large group of other people.

Franklin’s Library Company, which he referred to as the “public library of Philadelphia,” was formed with an idealistic view to break down class distinctions and allow artisans to become as well-read as the well-born.

“These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps has contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defense of their privilege,” Franklin wrote in his autobiography.

As noble as his sentiment may have been, it would be a while before his concept caught on in a big way. Before 1876, about 3,000 social libraries had been founded mostly in the northeast United States. But most were small and short-lived.

The library movement started to grow as public schools were built across the country. People began to wonder, what good is it to learn how to read if you don’t have anything to read? Legislation in the late-1830s permitted school districts to levy taxes for school libraries. By 1850 Massachusetts had 2,084, while New York schools had some 1.5 million library books.

The patron saint of the American library system was the millionaire Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie poured his fortune into the construction of 1,679 libraries in the United States. The gifts came with the obligation that communities pay for their maintenance and support in perpetuity. Today, more than 1,000 of them are still in use as libraries.

“I choose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people, because they give nothing for nothing,” Carnegie said in 1900. “They only help those who help themselves. They never pauperize. They reach the aspiring, and open to these the chief treasures of the world-those steeped up in books. A taste for reading drives out lower taste.”

Interestingly, another great boon to libraries came in the 1950s and 60s, when the nation found itself in a literacy race with the Soviet Union. The Library Services Act in 1956 and the Library Services and Construction Act of 1964 may have come about in response to a 1950 report “Public Library Inquiry,” published by the Social Science Research Council, which observed that “communist countries have been most active in promoting public library growth within their borders.”

Today our nation has 10,000 library systems with 16,500 outlets, and 80% are located in rural areas or small towns with less than 25,000 people. Modern libraries not only make it possible for the cash strapped to share in the great literary works of our culture, they provide community programs and allow free internet access to millions. They offer access licensed databases, homework help, online instruction access to local community information and service for job seekers.

Be proud, America, of your free lending libraries. Be proud of the ideals they represent.

-This article was adapted from a chapter in my book Broke is Beautiful.

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