Browsing the web this morning, I happened upon a friend's post about the "Free Library of Philadelphia" closing. Thinking the Free Library was a small private collection of some sort, I was horrified to learn that it is in fact the city's public library system. Due to inadequate funding from the State Legislature, effective October 2nd the entire public library system (main, regional, and central libraries and all affiliated programs) will shut down. As of September 10th, this Thursday past, all book holds and interlibrary loan orders have been terminated, and the last day to check a book out is September 30th.
I recall vividly the day I obtained my first library card. It was the summer between 3rd and 4th grades, and I was not quite eight years old. My father took a utility bill to the counter at Belmont Public Library in suburban Boston and handed me a blue plastic ticket to anywhere. The first book I checked out was on Soviet Georgia, and when last year the South Ossetian war made headlines, I had a rudimentary knowledge of the region thanks to that childhood read.
As a moneyed adult living in a world of Amazon.com, Borders, and Barnes&Noble, it is easy to forget the tremendous value a public library plays in a child's life. Instead of scouring the web for something of interest and then having to convince a parent or guardian to purchase it, a child can merely stroll amongst the stacks browsing for books he otherwise would have never dreamed of.
It was in a Calcutta library that my then-teenage father scoured the science section for books about the nascent field of molecular biology, which inspired him to devote a lifetime to the field. My first job was as a volunteer re-shelving books in the library; my little brother's was as a volunteer reading to younger children. For kids it is a place to discover new dreams and to take initiative to explore them. It is a place to sit on a couch and vanish into a good story, a safe public place to meet friends for homework after school, or even a stop to just surf the internet for free.
For adults, particularly those financially constrained, the library is a place for free education. A few months back, I relived the magic of getting my first library card when I obtained membership at the San Francisco Public Library. For the first month, I visited once a week to browse the galleries of sheet music, foreign language books, and recommended fiction, each time delighting in the almost-forgotten pleasure of drowning in the scent of old books. There were people studying in every nook and cranny of the building--test preparation, foreign languages, how-to guides, tax documents...
Perhaps I am behind the times and kids these days no longer visit the library with the same religiosity I once did. Perhaps they sit at home and browse the web or watch TV or visit a bookstore. It takes initiative to even make it through the library door, and in this culture where bookishness is derided that initiative might be rare, but to deny even one hopeful child the opportunity to read a book for free is a travesty we as a society can ill afford.
Here's how you can help: if you or someone you know lives in the Philadelphia area, you can contact your local legislator and let that person know how important this issue is. http://www.library.phila.gov/about/actionnow.htm