This week is National Library Week. I know. It seems that every week, indeed every day, celebrates something or other, from popcorn to donuts to libraries. But it’s my guess that National Library Week, first sponsored in 1958 by the American Library Association (ALA) and the American Book Publishers, got the jump on most of the current weekly and daily celebrations. In a few years National Library Week will be celebrating its sixtieth birthday.
And how did National Library Week come about in that faraway time before computers, mobile phones, and the Internet? According to the ALA website, “In the mid-1950s, research showed that Americans were spending less on books and more on radios, televisions and musical instruments. Concerned that Americans were reading less, the ALA and the American Book Publishers formed a nonprofit citizens organization called the National Book Committee in 1954…In1957, the committee developed a plan for National Library Week based on the idea that once people were motivated to read, they would support and use libraries.” The theme for the first National Library Week was “Wake Up and Read.”
As a child, nobody had to tell me to wake up and read. Books were an integral part of my life, and lucky child that I was, my parents took me to two libraries—a tiny one in East Vassalboro, which served all of Vassalboro, where we lived, and a larger one in Waterville, the small city nearby. Every week, books came into the house, and books went out of the house. While I grew up in a comfortable, middle-class family, there was no way my parents could have afforded to buy me all the books I wanted to read. For a child who lived in a small, rural town, those libraries were a lifeline, giving me access to the broader world of stories and ideas.
Today, fifty years later, the library continues to be a lifeline for me. I still live in a small rural town—Winthrop rather than North Vassalboro—and both could certainly be considered the hinterlands of the hinterland. My husband and I live on a modest budget, and, as was the case when I was young, there is no way we could afford to buy all the books I want to read. Thanks to the library and interlibrary loan, I can get nearly any book I’m interested in, from classics such as Middlemarch by George Elliot to newer books such as Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam.
As the ALA likes to remind people, libraries are more than books, and all the DVDs Clif and I watch come from the library. The DVDs range from the highbrow—Shakespeare—to the lowbrow—television series such as The Americans. As with books, pretty much anything we want to watch is available to us.
Winthrop’s library is supported primarily through town taxes, and I expect this is true for most town libraries in Maine. Not surprisingly, I consider it money very well spent, and I don’t begrudge one penny of property tax money that goes to the library. Our library is open to all residents, and it doesn’t matter who your family is or how much money you make. As long as you return the books you borrow, you are welcome to take out more books.
A friend of mine is moving to a small seaside town in Ireland that doesn’t have a library. (She will have access to a library in a larger town nearby.) She is a reader, and she says she is up to the challenge of living in a town with no library.
I have thought of this off and on for the past couple of days. Which would I choose, a town with a library or a town by the sea? This would not be an easy choice for me because I love the seaside nearly as much as I love books and libraries.
It would be a tough call, but I know that in the end, books and libraries would win.