“Libraries are the thin red line between civilization and barbarism.”

This month is the 60th anniversary of National Library Week, which we celebrate April 8-14.  In the mid-1950’s research showed that Americans were spending more on radios, televisions and musical instruments than books. Concerned that Americans were reading less a non-profit citizen’s group of librarians and booksellers created a national campaign to encourage people to read.

I grew up in that era, in a household in which everyone read. The books, magazines, and especially newspapers consumed by three generations living together reflected a wide spectrum of political and social views, from the left-leaning Jewish Daily Forward to the conservative and sensationalist New York Post, with an array of iconic NY papers – the Times, Daily News, and the long-defunct Journal American  –  somewhere in the middle.

Reading was in my DNA and libraries were my incubator. My love affair with libraries started with the bookmobile that came to our neighborhood in Brooklyn every Friday afternoon and continues today as I happily frequent the public libraries in and around Tempe and my NJ hometown, and everywhere I travel.  Libraries draw me in, sometimes because of the architecture, sometimes the history or subject matter, and often simply because they are there.

Public libraries are unique among civic institutions in that they are a haven for those seeking literacy and the opportunity to explore ideas, as well as a haven for many who need a place to go during the day. I was volunteering at the Burton Barr Library when storm damage closed the building. At that time, I did not realize the extent of the impact on the community.  Children lost free hot meals, provided by a local food bank, those with autism lost the cafe that offered them training and job skills, and those who needed it most lost their refuge from the summer heat.

It may be easy to dismiss public libraries as less essential in the age of e-books, streaming media, and Google, but there are considerable portions of our community who do not have ready access to these resources or the education or training to navigate them successfully. The inventive ways in which public libraries remain vibrant and relevant are marvelous and many. The Tempe Public Library, like others in the valley, represents the best characteristics of public libraries –  looking inward to serve their core constituency while reaching outward to engage and enrich the community. The wealth of free research guidance and one on one assistance, not to mention electronic resources – books, magazines, newspapers, research databases, music, movies – is remarkable. And consider the range of opportunities offered by our local libraries to learn, share and teach, including classes in citizenship, coding, game design, 3D modeling, ESL, writing, knitting, test preparation, films, lectures, and services such as small business advice and seed libraries.

While many communities still have bookmobiles to serve rural areas, Tempe has the Book Bike program, which brings books and information about library and community services to veterans, seniors, and the city’s homeless population.

And then there are the librarians. I must admit that I have no recollection of any of the public or school librarians from my childhood, but I can trace my decision to become one directly to the librarians for whom I worked in college. They seemed so cool! Smart, persistent, caring and wise (and wise-cracking), but with a certain self-effacing humor, as if they didn’t expect the world to take them seriously. And, despite the stereotypes, all my mentors were men – no buns but lots of glasses!

I have observed librarians over the years playing many roles in a community, as advocates and activists. They are often on the cutting edge of evolving technology, and on the front lines promoting digital literacy, championing intellectual freedom, ensuring equality of access, resisting censorship and protecting the right to privacy. Many of us remember the Patriot Act provision that authorized secretly monitoring electronic communications coming from libraries and requiring librarians to turn over patron records to the FBI when served with a warrant obtained without probable cause.  Professional library associations united as one to protest these incursions on our civil liberties.

As a law librarian, I have been a member of an outspoken and activist professional association that lobbies for permanent and open public access to government information, access to court records, net neutrality, intellectual property protections, and funding for library services across the country.  At a time when we are at risk of losing access to scientific and technical information because our government deems the truth to be inconvenient to their agenda, librarians are among our strongest allies and advocates. Librarians are adept at teaching us how to verify the authenticity and reliability of a source, and how to separate fact from fiction, evidence from opinion.

In many communities, librarians are taking on roles akin to social workers, health care workers, counselors, and confidantes.  In the midst of the controversy about arming teachers, libraries across the country are confronting the opioid epidemic and the implications of providing librarians with an antidote to drug overdoses, and the training to administer life-saving measures.  A library director in upstate NY summed up the situation like this: “That’s what a library’s job is — to respond to the needs of the community …  [l]ater, they may need Shakespeare. But those are their needs right now.”

So, join me in celebrating National Library Week. Show your support by asking a librarian a question, borrowing a book, downloading music, magazines, and movies, taking a class, volunteering your time. And tell a friend.

In the words of author Neil Gaiman “Libraries are the thin red line between civilization and barbarism.”

By Gitelle Seer, retired NYC law librarian and a seasonal resident in Tempe.Gitelle Seer photo


Additional Reading:

“From Crafting to Programming, Libraries are Branching Out From Books,” https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/phoenix/2018/03/03/crafting-programming-libraries-branching-out-books/359593002
“How Public Libraries Help Build Healthy Communities,” https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2017/03/30/how-public-libraries-help-build-healthy-communities
“Librarians Versus the NSA,” https://www.thenation.com/article/librarians-versus-nsa
“Libraries on the Front Lines,” ALA interview with Neil Gaiman [2011]
“Once It Was Overdue Books. Now Librarians Fight Overdoses,” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/28/nyregion/librarians-opioid-heroin-overdoses.html


About the header photo.

“The Kansas City Public Library hides the parking lot behind walls disguised as giant book spines.”  (Photograph: Alamy) “The most beautiful libraries in America – in pictures,” https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/gallery/2016/oct/06/most-beautiful-libraries-america-pictures