Love a library

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Pippi Longstocking is the first book I remember checking out of a library.

For a grade-schooler growing up in a small Catholic community on the Jersey shore, Pippi brought to life a whole new world, one in which she ruled as a slightly-disheveled, quirky, curious and unabashedly brave and intrepid spirit.

In other words, the opposite of me.

Pippi was also one of the reasons I fell in love with books -- and libraries, by happenstance, since at least in my world they were the only places we found books in the 60s and 70s.

Libraries became a sort of sanctuary for me, a safe place where you could wander in search of faraway countries and encounter folks unlike those you knew.

I loved the endless rows of stacked shelves, the summer reading challenges, the local news and art displayed on boards, and the ritual of checking out and then returning books, only to find more.

The writer Anne Lamott said this about libraries:

In a library, you can find small miracles in truths. And you might find something that will make you laugh so hard that you will be shushed in the friendliest way.

I have found sanctuary in libraries my whole life. And there is sanctuary there now from the war, from the storms of our families in our own minds. Libraries are like mountains or meadows or creeks, sacred space.

I agree.

Certainly libraries, like bookstores, took a hit over the decades, as reading shifted away from paper.

But while plenty of readers drifted, fascinated by new gadgets, libraries quietly adapted, resiliently muscling their way into the public discourse.

Beyond the housing of books, libraries have now grown into vital community centers, places where people actually engage with each other on a personal level and share experiences, interests, problems and civic concerns. Dialogue is ever present.

On any given day at my local library, you’ll find a language class in one room, seniors convened in another space - learning computer skills or exchanging stories – book groups, craft classes, tax help, voting information, speakers addressing trends, local art on display, plenty of public computers for those who still lack a home connection to the electronic world and, of course, librarians, whose depth and breadth of knowledge continue to amaze me.

Libraries are sacred spaces indeed, worthy of the respect and preservation that come with that designation.

Which brings me to this piece of good news.

In November, New Jersey voters can approve the issuance of $125 million in bonds to fund much needed physical and technological improvements at public libraries.

New Jersey ranks 34th in the nation for state aid to local public libraries, according to the New Jersey Library Association, and it’s been more than 15 years since the last infusion of public money helped libraries grow. At least half of the buildings need to upgrade facilities to accommodate those with disabilities.  Others need electrical and technological improvements and more physical space to meet demand.

There are always competing demands on the public fisc, and taking on debt to meet those demands may dishearten some.

But making our libraries accessible to the disabled, expanding their spaces to accommodate a growing desire for reading, learning and engaging, and upgrading technology to help patrons compete with other online learners – these are laudable goals, well worth the price tag.

Jersey folks, love your libraries. They have so much more than just books to offer you.