A love letter to the public library

This year, as Valentine’s Day approaches, I have become reacquainted with an old love: the public library.

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After recently starting work as a Museum Assistant at the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum, I have become absorbed in research on women’s suffrage and equal rights. This quest has led me (happily) on a tour of my local public libraries. I was delighted to learn that as a resident of Alexandria, Virginia, I was entitled to membership at not only Alexandria libraries, but also Fairfax County and Arlington libraries!

Filled with #librarylove, I decided now was a good time to read The Public Library: A Photographic Essay, an 18-year photographic survey of American public libraries by Robert Dawson with personal reflections from writers and library advocates. (See Dawson’s related blog here.) Dawson’s relationship with the photographs captivated me most, particularly the empathy and curiosity framing each image. I realized that any discussion or exploration of the public library was inherently personal so I began to reflect on my own history.

‘Whenever I found a library, I immediately felt at home.’ Charles Simic ‘A Country Without Libraries’ The Public Library p. 37

As a child growing up in a reasonably small Queensland town, I loved going to my local library. My mental image of its interior is surprisingly focused and includes both the sights and the smells of the place. My parents were sometimes strict about the kinds of movies and television that I could watch (at least in my opinion at the time) and so library books represented a source of free and open information and entertainment, a chance to explore the world uncensored.

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‘ … when people don’t have free access to books, then communities are like radios without batteries.’ Anne Lamott ‘Steinbeck Country’ The Public Library, p. 165

Libraries have been a great resource to me, especially during times of stress or transition. When my husband and I first moved back to Australia a few years ago, the local library provided our first Internet connection, and was therefore instrumental in helping us find our first jobs. Several years later, while I was continually moving between shifts at work and writing my master’s thesis (trying not to lose too many hours in the car), the abundant local libraries in Brisbane were a godsend. The Ashgrove Library became my workspace and second home; its large, breezy terrace provided a peaceful place to write while enjoying nature.

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‘For countless people the public library represents opportunity and hope.’ Robert Dawson ‘Introduction’ The Public Library p. 9

Last year, Ferguson Library offered its space as a refuge from the crisis that erupted following a grand jury decision not to indict police officer, Darren Wilson, in the shooting death of unarmed African American teenager, Michael Brown. I think libraries are natural venues for supporting communities in crisis because they are designed to be comfortable and familiar, and to promote a strong sense of public ownership. I’m grateful that they are increasingly willing to take on the challenges of a community service role. I was intrigued to learn (from Dawson’s book) that the San Francisco Main Library employs a full-time social worker to assist library visitors.

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‘Our work demands that we become dreamers, holding onto hope that our society can be better….’ Dorothy Lazard ‘Practicing Seva’ The Public Library p. 105

In the same spirit as my previous post about parks, I’m curious about the lessons that museums can learn from libraries. Of course, museums are their own institutions, and many of the ways in which they diverge from libraries are what help make them special and valuable. However, I still feel that public libraries possess qualities and values that museums could strive to emulate—with positive impacts on their communities. Public libraries are places of refuge, of comfort, and of earnest self-betterment. In short, much of what libraries represent to communities and individuals, museums could too.

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The values of access and equity that epitomize our idea of the public library today did not always reflect reality. This exhibition currently on display at Beatley Central Library tells the story of local African American residents who asserted their right to use their public library through a library sit-in 1939.

 

All photos were taken at the Beatley Central Library in Alexandria, Virginia.

Dawson, R. (2014). The Public Library. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press.

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