Civics Lessons from the Public Library

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Seattle Public Library, Douglass-Truth Branch. Photo from MOHAI (1983.10.10164.1)

When I was six, I walked through the towering doors of what was then the Yesler branch of the Seattle Public Library (it has since been renamed the Douglass-Truth branch, in a fitting tribute to Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth). Using a short pencil chosen from the jar at the checkout desk I carefully etched my name on an application slip. The librarian, nameless and faceless to me these many years later, accepted my offering, filled out a manila-folder-tan library card, then pressed her stamp into the the blue ink pad in its flat metal box and imprinted the expiration date - the official seal of libraries everywhere - before handing it across to me.

That card was the first thing I ever owned that was mine through civic right rather than by gift. Possession of a Seattle Public Library card meant that I was a member of the public, with all of the rights and responsibilities of that membership. Of course I did not fully understand that relationship as a six-year-old but still I knew that I had walked into the library as one person and walked out of it as someone else. I don’t remember what books I checked out on my first day of membership in the body civic, but I remember proudly carrying my new library card home.

As an undiagnosed introvert, my childhood haven was found in books. And books were found in libraries. Even now, nearly five decades later, I could tell you where in any Seattle library you could find stories of wizards, or pirates, or wilderness adventures. Books about building model airplanes, trains, cars, boats. Novels of fantasy and science fiction, and tales of UFOs. Books about flying, and motorcycles, and race cars. Books about dogs, books about horses, books about children solving mysteries.

But even more important than the books they contained, libraries were spaces where anyone belonged - even I, a child who seemingly belonged nowhere else. That slip of tan cardboard gave me permission to explore every hidden corner, every aisle, every book-filled shelf - all there for me as much as for anyone else. In the library, all members of the public were equal. There were no gradations of wealth (a subject about which I knew nothing, since my family did not possess wealth). And, so far as a child’s perceptions of such things extended, there were no barriers of class or race or gender. The books, at least, did not care about such things at all.

Beginning with that childhood introduction, libraries have epitomized for me a certain fundamental social contract that is at the root of a civil society. An assumption that we will all share the resources of the common, and that if we abide by the rules which apply equally to all citizens (return your books on time so that others can read them, don’t break the spines, or tear the dust jacket, or spill your grape juice on the page) then the common will benefit all citizens without respect to wealth, privilege, or membership in some social tribe.

Over time other institutions joined the library in my map of the civic landscape. The public parks and beaches, open to all. The community centers where I took classes in pottery and learned to sail. The public pools where I learned to swim, splashing indiscriminately with the other children. The bus system, which anyone could ride anywhere in the city for a nominal fee. The public schools, where I suffered the same torments, defeats, and rare victories as every other child, and where each November my parents would vote in the hot, dry, echoing gymnasium, waiting in line with the rest of our community before entering the secular confessional booth with its curtain, shelf, and metal punch, and casting their ballot.

For me those community spaces came to represent society, government, the common good. In my child’s view, everyone contributed and everyone shared. But growing up as I did, a white boy in one of the least diverse places in America, I had very little understanding of the tribal fractures in our society. I was not so much color-blind as color-ignorant. I did not grow up with wealth but neither did I have to suffer poverty, as I now know many of the neighboring children did. From my progressive parents and teachers I learned of feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment as assumed aspects of a just society, not as battlegrounds in a culture war. I was never required to face the truth that not everyone shared the privileges of race, gender, and family that I had been given at birth.

Years later, after we moved to Baltimore with its racial divisions and fine gradations of wealth and class, I learned that my assumptions about the nature of our social contract were wildly naive. I attended a mostly white, mostly wealthy, private prep school (for which my parents mortgaged years of their future earnings). The “inner city” became a place where white kids like me did not go - the first time I had ever experienced such a restriction. There were no public pools, or if there were we did not visit them. Nor were there shared community centers. No one I knew in Baltimore rode the bus, or had ever done so, or even knew how. Some parks were ours to visit, others were not. The casual racism and classism embedded in the fabric of the city became a maze that I navigated poorly, and with many false turns.

But through all of these assaults on my concept of community, the public library remained constant. Nothing in Baltimore was like anything I had known growing up in Seattle except the libraries. There I found the same rows of books, the same high ceilings, the same well-lit, quiet spaces, the same arcane system of numbers cataloging the aisle, section, and shelf where I could find stories about dragons or cowboys or deep sea diving. If we shared anything at all as a society, it seemed, we shared that place.

In the decades that have passed since those childhood revelations, the fissures in our society have become more visible. Inequities of race, gender, wealth, opportunity, education, healthcare are inescapable in their presence on the news, in commentary, in protest and in counter protest. Which, I believe, is ultimately for the good. America was not less broken in the 1970s or 1980s or 1990s than it is now. The cracks were simply easier to ignore before the development of the Internet. That new institution has enabled exponential increases in communication and access to knowledge - resources that tower over the public libraries that I loved as a boy.

The Internet has given us a million, ten million, a hundred million stories - the lives of people who represent every possible aspect of America. Our access to the experiences of others, to “the other”, has created a world in which it should not be possible to grow up, as I did and as so many of us have, without understanding that there are different experiences. That the America experienced by a kid in urban Seattle is not the same as the America of a single mother in New York, a fisherman in Alaska, or a farmer in Ohio. At the same time, as we are now able to connect with many more people from much farther outside our own immediate experience, we risk losing our sense of civic connection.

Once the public library offered information, free to all, that would have otherwise been out of reach even for the wealthy. And in doing so it created the one truly egalitarian space in our society. But for those who have access to the Internet there is now no reason to ever visit a library, and no reason to enter into that civic contract which is the essence of the shared commons. The (comparatively) wealthy are free to consume any information that they please, at any time they like, without regard to or consideration for any other member of our society, while people without those resources are relegated to the information equivalent of steerage class.

Access to information is an absolute good, and the Internet, even with all of its mediocrities and diversions, remains the most powerful force for social change ever created. And yet as we explore our way toward a better understanding of who we are as a society, a nation, and a global community, we should not lose sight of the ways in which our civic bonds are maintained through our shared institutions. The Internet, in all its vastness, is no replacement for the public library.