The best-kept secret about libraries? They are wildly, deeply, and incontrovertibly popular. They are as actively used as ever, if not more. Here’s my piece for Pacific Standard in its “You Don’t Know America” series … and below, an excerpt.
…this “amazing decentralized mutual aid” creation, as one librarian described it, was founded on a radical belief that all citizens have a right to information, art, and literature. That these things are not a luxury, but a necessity, is an idea that turned the old elite concept of private libraries and ivory towers on its head.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the people locked out of the traditional venues for knowledge are the ones who pioneered the public library. By donating book collections, fundraising for better buildings, and lobbying for political support, women’s clubs around the country were key forces in cultivating public libraries: 75 percent of America’s libraries were started by them on humanistic principles.
Funding cuts be damned: more than 16,000 public library branches in the U.S. serve 96.4 percent of the population, according to the “State of America’s Libraries Report 2013” by the American Library Association. (The ALA was founded in 1876, the same year the Dewey decimal system was developed.) Public libraries circulated 2.46 billion materials last year, the greatest volume in 10 years. Over this same period, the circulation of children’s book and materials increased by more than 28 percent. Attendance at library-hosted programs for kids hit 60.5 million in 2013.
The assistance of librarians was also cited as important to 76 percent of library users surveyed by Pew. About the same number said that the space of the library itself—as a quiet and safe place—was meaningful to them. All but six percent agreed that “public libraries are a welcoming, friendly place,” and a staggering 91 percent said they personally have never had a negative experience using a public library, either in person or online.
Also, I gotta say: I really like how the photo Pacific Standard used is of the Bates Reading Room in the Boston Public Library, down the road from where I used to live. I went there when I needed to breathe. Many, many wonderful days spent in this room.