An Actual Place by William Polking
If you weren’t a weird little kid, then you were never a little kid. Even so, I was a weird little kid. Anxious and awkward, I felt more comfortable with books than I did people. Once, in elementary school, when the power went out, I asked the teacher if I could move my desk over by the window so I could continue reading. Yes, I was that kid.
My elementary librarian shepherded my reading, and it is only now as an adult and a reading teacher that I realize the extent of her gift to me. I hung out in the school library not only because I loved books, but also because the pages of a book often felt like a safer place to me than hallways or commons or playgrounds.
I also haunted the public library, both our town’s original Carnegie Library and then later the “new” library a few blocks away. (One can currently best describe the aesthetic of our town’s library as “70’s Fluorescent,” so you can see why I put “new” in scare quotes.) Whether reading all the Hercule Poirot mysteries by Agatha Christie or spending a summer devouring as many biographies as I could, I lost many of my anxieties amid those stacks.
In the library I was braver than I ever could be in real life. I tried books out just because their covers looked “cool,” or because I had some vague sense that they were supposed to be important, which is how I ended up choosing John Dean’s Nixon biography Blind Ambition for a book report in eighth grade. Not all of my ambitions were so blind, however. Full disclosure: I also used my growing confidence to look up all the old Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issues in the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature, only to find that others had already ripped out all the pictures. Wait, did I say pictures? I meant articles.
The library was my Rushmore. (I realize this reference will make no sense to those of you who have not watched the film Rushmore, but if you are one of those people, stop reading right now and watch the film.)
And now I find myself back in my hometown, teaching at the public high school, and lamenting the future of libraries. Libraries in general, but my libraries in particular. My high school, due to budget cuts, has eliminated the shared middle school/high school librarian position for this year. So in the seven years since my return, my high school has gone from a full-time librarian to a part-time librarian to no librarian at all this year. There is talk of turning the high school library into a “digital hub.” Not entirely sure what that means, but I imagine it involves zeros and ones. Mostly zeros.
In addition, our town has been trying for nearly a decade to build a new library, only to find fatal resistance to every option put forth. The latest debate was particularly contentious, with the opposition claiming vociferously that print is dead, so why do we need a new library? They have determined that digital technology will save us. We all have our devices now, after all (rhetorical and otherwise).
It is not the thought of electronic devices replacing physical books that worries me (I expect most readers will incorporate both reading on screens and reading in print as part of their reading lives, much as we already have); it is the thought that we should all be left to our own devices. The changing nature of what a public library should be does not change the foundational arguments about why libraries matter. The technological determinists forget these foundational arguments, arguments best stated recently by Ann Patchett in her afterword to The Public Library: A Photographic Essay, by Robert Dawson.
“If you are fortunate enough to be able to buy your books, and you have your own computer with which to conduct research, and you’re not in search of a story hour for your children, then don’t forget about the members of your community who are like you but perhaps lack your resources—the ones who love to read, who long to learn, who need a place to go and sit and think. Make sure that in your good fortune you remember to support their quest for a better life. That’s what a library promises us, after all: a better life. And that’s what libraries have delivered.”
Libraries helped deliver that better life for me. I am now fortunate enough to buy my own books, both for myself and often for my classroom library. And I do have my own computer with which to conduct research. But most of all I do remember what it was like to need a place to go and sit and think. Not a digital space—an actual place.
William Polking teaches reading to ninth graders, college composition to high school seniors pretending to be college freshmen, a media literacy elective, and one section of English 11. He also coaches large group and individual events speech, as well as soccer. You can find him on Twitter @polking, where he favors bad puns and the occasional sigh.