I was reminded recently how starkly the mission of the public library contrasts with that of the “membership library” near me. An article described the membership library as having the look of “a turn-of-the-20th-Century private club,” which it is since “use of the collection and reading room is restricted to current subscribers.”
The public library’s mission, on the other hand, is simply “connecting people.” All of the people in its community, that is. No paid subscription ($55 – $1,500/year for the membership library) required. For this and other reasons, a community’s public library can be its most important place. By allowing everyone to explore, interact, and imagine, public libraries do more than provide information. They build citizens.
- Public libraries promote literacy, provide a gathering place and promote personal and professional development.
- Public libraries promote cooperation and sharing of the valuable assets that belong to us all.
- Public libraries help patrons exercise their right to know.
In the Seinfeld episode, “The Library,” Jerry said, “What’s amazing to me about the library is that, here’s a place where you can go in, you take out any book you want, they just give it to you and say, ‘Bring it back when you’re done.’ It reminds me of like this pathetic friend everybody had when they were a little kid that would let you borrow any of his stuff if you would just be his friend. That’s what the library is, it’s a government-funded pathetic friend. That’s why everybody kind of bullies the library. ‘I’ll bring it back on time, I’ll bring it back late. Oh, what are you going to do? What are you going to charge me, a nickel?'”
A seemingly devastating characterization. But if you take away the smarmy, hipster snarkiness, the comedian is paying the library a massive tribute. Indeed, the public library is about going out of its way to lend things—books, movies, music, magazines—that many people couldn’t or wouldn’t acquire for themselves. And, yes, it does it on very generous terms. Pathetic? On the contrary, I consider it remarkable and an incredibly noble facet of our society.