Preserving Public and Private Libraries

I still have my first library card.  Granted, it’s long expired and returning to that library would be an hour commute, but I still have the card.  I’ve been going to libraries my entire life, and it baffles me when adults enter the library and ask to get a library card, “but I’ve never had one before.”  (And for at least half of them, it’s not like they just moved to the area.  They’ve lived here their whole lives and never had a card.)  I know I can’t keep the look of surprise off my face, although I do refrain from asking, “How have you lived?”

My family already had a substantial collection of books; both of my parents are avid readers.  However, a public library has more resources and more space than a private homeowner, so it’s a perfect resource if you don’t want to break the bank and fill your house floor to ceiling with books.  We also never had commercial TV of any kind (never have and never will.)  We went to Blockbuster a few times, but it was always so expensive.  Why spend $3 to rent a movie for three days when you could go to the library and rent a copy for free for two or three weeks?  Libraries allow you to check out favorite books and movies over and over, plus you can sample hundreds if not thousands of new material to see if you like it.  And then, if you’re like me and you enjoy something enough, you go buy a copy for yourself.

Some people ask me why I bother to buy books and movies anymore.  I have twelve bookcases stuffed into my tiny trailer that are jam-packed with books, DVDs, and even VHS tapes.  I haven’t read or watched all of them.  I have an entire box of CDs and cassette tapes hiding under my desk.  Most of those I have listened to at least once, although most have found their way onto the computer and my MP3 player because it’s easier to transport.  Yet I still go to book sales, browse Amazon and eBay, and check out materials from the library.  I work at a library.  I am a firm supporter of libraries.  In fact, today I even got another library card, so I will have access to three libraries (two in PA, one in Maryland), and sporadic connections to all the libraries in PA and Maryland through interlibrary loan.  I might even get access to a fourth library, depending on what items I’m looking for.  As a librarian, I do enjoy a higher level of connectivity to the library world than the average patron.  But with so much access, why do I still bother to spend money and use up space for my own private purchases, especially since most I was introduced to most of what I buy through the library?

1) I am a collector.

I suppose some would consider me a hoarder, but, unlike the rest of my home, my books are always neat, organized, and well-cared for.  I haven’t reached a point where my collecting of books and movies has interfered with my day-to-day functioning.  But I do hoard books.  I love going to book sales and finding old, possibly out-of-print books that other over-look that may contain wonderful gems that only I and maybe a few others will know about.  I like having books around me, to see, to touch, to smell.  It’s comforting.  Instead of hoarding gold and jewels, this dragon hoards paper.  It’s part of my nature, and heck, everyone needs a hobby.

2) They are MINE.

I like having things that belong to me.  I could never live in a commune where no one owns anything or where everybody shares.  In a way, that’s what a library is: a literary commune.  None of the items “belong” to anyone and everybody shares.  However, the downside of that is you never know what condition the items will return in, or if they will even return at all.  CDs come back scratched beyond recognition, children’s books return with rips, tears, and sticky fingerprints, and entire seasons of TV shows vanish without a trace.  Only last week I found several books of manga where someone had ripped out pages or carefully cut out panels for their scrapbook.  It makes me want to weep, scream, and throw bricks through people’s windows.  Some patrons are very careful with their items and are horrified when a simple accident occurs.  They are apologetic and pay their fines without complaint.  But so many others just don’t care because the books and movies don’t belong to them.  No sense of ownership, no sense of responsibility.  When you shell out your own hard-earned money for something, you’re more likely to take care of it.  And this is why I buy my own copies because that way I know where they are, I know where they have been, I know their conditions, and if something happens, I have a much smaller pool of people would could be responsible for the damage.

3) I have items the library doesn’t have or doesn’t want.

Libraries are notoriously under-funded and it gets worse every year.  Even though libraries have more resources and more space than a private, personal library like mine, they still eventually run out of room and must spend their ever-shrinking funds wisely.  That means libraries must weed their collections and carefully consider purchase requests.  They try to focus on broad brushstrokes to attract the largest number of patrons possible.  They can’t afford to spend money and space on items that are too niche, too eclectic, or too unknown to garner an audience.  (The only exceptions are college or university libraries, but most of those are restricted to students only.)  Even if such an item is purchased, if it doesn’t have a high checkout rate, then it will probably be weeded from the shelves and either sold at a book sale or tossed.  Nothing makes me cry more than seeing books sitting by a dumpster.  (I usually poke through them, but even I have to be selective.  If it doesn’t look like something I would like to read, I can’t take it home just for the sake of saving it.  No room, remember?)  Still, over the years, I have managed to save various books at library book sales, and I’ve found some good series that way.  Book sales are also a good way to fill in the missing gaps in your collections.  I always get frustrated when a library has parts of a series, but the others were either never purchased or got lost or stolen somewhere along the way.  If it’s a popular series or one that I think a lot of people would like, I send in a purchase request.  If not, I buy it myself.

4) I don’t trust electronics.

If you’ve been reading my entries for a while, you probably already know my stance on electronics (see “Write This Down!” and “Distractions” if you don’t).  I like them, they are great tools, but I don’t trust them one iota.  A lot of people watch movies through Netflix and read books with e-readers and listen or download music off the internet.  The days of easy access to music via free download may be coming to an end thanks to government crack-downs, but you can still listen to a lot of it on YouTube or other sites, even if you can’t put it on your personal media player.  And e-readers and Netflix don’t look like they will be losing steam anytime soon.  So, with these easy electronic options that can store far more movies, books, and music than I could ever hope to store analog-style, why keep buying physical books, movies, and CDs, which are usually more expensive than their electronic counterparts?  Well, partly because I’m stubborn.  I was raised with physical books and VHS tapes and clunky cassette players.  Those mediums are familiar to me.  But I also prefer a lot of analog because electronics are so easy to damage.  Water, power surges, viruses, being dropped…there are so many ways to damage electronic storage, both the hardware and the software.  And, unlike a book, a little glue or tape or drying out isn’t going to fix it.  I have no idea how to fix software and hardware is too complex and expensive, so I end up having to replace it and all its contents, which does not save me time, money, or stress.  Without an analog backup, I’m screwed.  And trust me, I’ve had my computer crash often enough to be very wary of trusting electronics.  I like it for backup and I make backups of my backups of my backups regularly.  But I hate staring at screens to read and the fact that Nooks and Kindle screens are designed to be as much like a page as possible only indicates to me that the page is already superior to the screen.  And with the crack-downs on internet music downloads, soon the only way you can sample music before shelling out money for it is by going to the library and checking it out.  Electronic trends may come and go with their multiple file types and compatibility issues, but the simplicity and durability of paper and vinyl will remain.

5) Preservation.

I don’t believe in a zombie apocalypse.  However, I do know that our tech-heavy society is growing increasingly fragile.  The slightest hitch in the works can send the entire machine grinding to a halt and throw our entire nation into chaos.  It takes less than you might think.  Cities only have enough food in stock to last three days.  If the transportation infrastructure breaks down, after three days the food riots start.  It’s rather scary if you think about it too hard and with the upcoming elections, I think about it more than more.  If society does collapse, most people will be thinking more about survival than preserving knowledge of the past.  Can’t say I blame them; I’ll probably be doing the same thing.  During such a time, the best case scenario for libraries is that they will be locked up and left alone.  More likely they’ll be broken into to use for shelter and the books for firewood, a fate that makes me shudder.  So I still try to collect as much as I can now just in case those Dark Ages come.  Remember Fahrenheit 451 with the men who were miniature libraries, memorizing books to recite later when the world was ready to be reborn?  That’s an image that has stuck with me ever since I read it in 6th grade.  I don’t have the mental capacity to memorize entire books.  I’m too immersed in modern brain chemistry to be able to do that.  But I can collect.  I can hoard.  I can preserve.  And I can continue to read.

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