Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Walker in the City: The Gift of Public Libraries

Herman Melville’s Ishmael claimed that a whale ship was his Yale College and his Harvard. I like to tell people that I graduated from the Sawyer Free Library. While I’ve enjoyed the privilege of an excellent formal education in the Gloucester public schools, in college and in graduate school, I have always believed that my real education began at the age of six when I first starting visiting my local library. Browsing in the stacks, I discovered many of the books that have meant the most to me. And it was on those very shelves, long before we read him in school, that I first encountered the writings of Henry David Thoreau, who, in effect, became one of my greatest teachers.

I was lucky. My Aunt Helene Lasley, a beloved elementary school teacher in Gloucester, taught me to read at an early age and got me my first library card. This began a lifelong passion for reading and a thirst for knowledge, which the library has satisfied during the nearly sixty-five years I’ve proudly held that library card.

I can still picture the children’s library upstairs in the original Sanders-Beach house, donated to the Gloucester Lyceum in 1884 by Samuel Sawyer, with its beautiful waterfront murals and shelf after shelf of books, which I despaired of ever reading my way through. The librarians, as helpful then as they are now, were always on hand to recommend books and point an avid reader in the right direction. Sometimes I would sit for hours on the carpeted floor of the children’s library, poring over the Holling C. Holling books on American Indians or reading one book after another in the “Oz” series without even taking them home. For a library is not merely a place where books (and today many learning media) are kept; a library is a refuge, a safe haven for the quiet pursuit and enjoyment of learning. A public library is one of the greatest gifts of a free society. We are even more fortunate today because our library has become the community’s cultural center, offering a variety of lectures, films, exhibits and literacy programs, all free of charge, that contribute to a lifetime of learning and pleasure.

Long before advanced education was an economic and social possibility for most citizens, the American public library system served that purpose. Eric Hoffer, longshoreman, social philosopher, and author of “The True Believer,” a seminal study of fanaticism, never attended school, though he was ultimately appointed research professor in political science at Berkeley. Hoffer writes movingly about how, during the 1920s and 30s, as an itinerant laborer he frequented public libraries from New York to California, not only for their warmth in winter, as he hopped on and off freight cars, but for the incendiary quality of the ideas he found in books. Blind in his early youth, Hoffer’s sight returned miraculously and he taught himself to read, spending every free moment in the library for the rest of his life.

Hoffer’s public library education, engrossingly detailed in a series of 1967 New Yorker articles by Calvin Tompkins, is only one of thousands of such experiences, mine included. For there is nothing like the freedom of a public library where we follow our own bent, picking and choosing among books, films, magazines, CDs and DVDs, in effect creating our own personal curriculum. And now we can also enjoy the wonders of the Internet, or simply use a computer to write on, although, for me, there is no substitute for the book in hand, the intimacy of our contact with the pages, the clarity of the type, its magic as we are swept away by words, images, stories, into new worlds.

It’s with my own deep gratitude for the gift of the Sawyer Free Library, which for me has really been a gift of life, that I write in support of the debt exclusion ballot soon to come before Gloucester voters. To be sure, these are difficult times for the city, for the nation, in terms of setting fiscal and educational priorities. But an expanded and updated Sawyer Free Library is an investment not only in the future of Gloucester and our children, but in the enrichment of the lives of every one of us who currently lives, learns in and loves this community. Please vote “Yes” on Tuesday, April 24!

This essay appeared as a "My View" column in the Gloucester Daily Times of April 3, 2007. On April 24, in a nearly 2-1 decision, as reported below by the Gloucester Daily Times, Gloucester voters rejected the debt exclusion ballot that would have provided the match to state funds for renovating the Sawyer Free Library. The Times itself had editorialized in favor of the measure, citing the importance to the city of an expanded, state-of-the-art library.

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