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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

"In Praise of Libraries" by Joe Queenan

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, March 01, 2015

 

Last week, I wrote about the future of public libraries, and it seemed to strike-a-chord in the minds of many people.  I got lots of comments, mostly in the gist of “public libraries aren’t going to go-away are they?”

 

I don’t think so because the mission of our public library building when it opened in 1902 thanks to a donation from Andrew Carnegie was “to provide information to the public.”

 

Well, 113 years later and we are doing the same thing, just with different resources and tools available to our society today.

 

That’s hard to explain to some people who feel that every morsel of information can be found free on the Internet by using Google.  The development of the Internet has actually boosted the use of the public library.

 

As the library staff was discussing this very issue, one of my Library Board members called to alert me to an article in the new issue of “Rotarian Magazine,” and asked if I had received my copy.

 

My copy of the magazine arrived within the hour of that call, and I noticed that the “library article” was even mentioned on the front cover.  Maybe it has the answer to my question about the library future, I thought.

 

Page 37 found the article by Joe Queenan, well-known to most librarians for his 10 or so books, as well as articles in a variety of publications, better-known perhaps for his work in the “Wall Street Journal.”

 

A few years ago, he estimated that he had read 6,128 books in his lifetime, a habit started with a Bookmobile as a child, as he looked to overcome a childhood with an alcoholic father.

 

Mr. Queenan is a columnist and a humorist, and sees life differently from others with an ability to identify the ills of our society.

 

His article in the “Rotarian” quickly summed up his feelings, “The public library is the community’s kindly grandmother: helpful, patient, understanding.  Nobody in my town ever stands up and says he dislikes the public library.  Nobody in your town does, either.  Grumpy old librarians who keep shushing you, sure.  But not the library itself.”

 

He says that the public library is different from any other institution in our society, “It is public, in the true democratic sense of the word.”  He continues, “They make society better than it would be if left to its own devices.  Libraries are subtle, almost cunning, bulwark against the racial and socioeconomic segregation that society naturally gravitates toward, even when it does not do so out of malice.”

 

I can honestly say that after 44 years of working in a library, I have never discussed the library in a sentence that remotely resembled that statement, but I do understand the point he is making.

 

Mr. Queenan is a resident of Tarrytown, NY and quotes the Director of the Warner Public Library in his article.  My best to Maureen Petry as she tells the author that “some people think libraries are obsolete because you can Google everything.”

 

She counters with the fact that her library, like all public libraries check out lots of library books (192,000 in the village of Tarrytown) so somebody thinks they are important.

 

The author notes that public libraries offer good books, and bad books, and that is the whole point.  Libraries are a big part of the adventure of life, a place to learn, a place to play.  A place to “go hither when one is expected to go yon.  Not all work conducted in a library is rewarded, not all bears fruit, not every pathway leads where you might expect it to go.  So what?  The journey is what matters, not the destination.”

 

I was at the desk in our library one day, when two people returned the same book and one said, “That book was terrible, I hated it!”  The other person said, “This was one of the best books I ever read.”  The library provided the opportunity for the two people to share their thoughts and discuss their reading.

 

Mr. Queenan is not a fan of eBooks and information that comes in one of the new technical resources.  He still wants a “real book.”

 

So, do public libraries have a future in our society?  Joe says. “The public library is thus both the ultimate backstage pass and the rabbit hole we can follow Alice down.  The library is not just the House of Knowledge.  It is the House of Dreams.”