I got a piece of mail today from the school where my dad went to college. It was a colorful tri-fold request for donations to support the campus library. On the outside was a drawing of a darkened library and the words “No one would die if the library didn’t exist.”
On the inside was a drawing of the same library lit up and bustling with activity and the words “but we wouldn’t truly live.”
I get the point and I agree with the second part – even though libraries don’t save lives the way, say, hospitals do, they’re essential to our vitality.
But I took the first part as sort of a query. Is it true that no one would die if libraries didn’t exist? And I don’t just mean in that colloquial “I would die if I couldn’t go to the library ” kind of way. I certainly can’t imagine my life without the library, but that isn’t what I’m getting at.
I think it’s probably easier than we might think to trace the actual survival of actual people to their own or others’ access to libraries. Some of the connections may be distant – a person who will one day hold the power to start or stop wars begins by finding a book in a library that inspires him to read or to learn more about something that in turn inspires further learning or inquiry and investigation or just plain empowers him to believe that he has the ability and resources to make an important contribution. Other connections may be more direct. People in tremendous despair have been saved by specific particular books that let them know they are not alone in their plight or that map a way out they wouldn’t otherwise have known existed. And then there’s that libraries are often used by those who are homeless to keep warm during the day. By itself that’s probably not enough to keep a person alive, but it may go a long way toward it.
This may be an especially sore subject for me this week, as a faithful listener to The Writer’s Almanac, which ended last Wednesday and whose archives were removed from the web when Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media severed its ties with Garrison Keillor’s media companies after allegations of sexual misconduct. Along with the obvious importance of taking such allegations seriously, there are legal and financial reasons that under the circumstances the show could not continue to be broadcast and had its archive removed. I mention it here not to comment on that situation but because the archive of the show is a library of its own, of history, poetry, and connection among writers and thinkers. As with the libraries, we could say that no one will die because it’s gone, but we don’t know that. We don’t know what strength and power a handful of words or a well-timed resonant historical note or a library or a book from that library can have. We just don’t know.