Op-ed column: Libraries, and those who work there, are unsung national treasures
I’ve always been a big fan of libraries. In elementary school we would have to go to the library weekly, and I loved how quiet it was. I’d look through the selection of books and leaf through some of my favorite magazines. I usually didn’t want to return to class. A good library is like an ancient cathedral.
In Ken Burns documentary on our national parks, he referred to them as America’s Best Idea. Well, our national system of libraries in this country is another pretty good idea.
In high school, I spent a fair amount of time being told to be quiet in the library. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. I just loved being there, and I was relaxed and surrounded by my favorite books, magazines and friends.
At Manhattan College we had an old library from the late 1800s, and I loved exploring the tiny little hallways up at the top. It seemed those quaint passageways could lead me to a different time or a different dimension. Some of my friends were afraid to go up there late at night, but I loved it.
Around the country
Whenever my wife and I travel to a big city, I try to stop by the main library and see what it’s like. Some are famous and are even tourist attractions, like the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and the New York Public Library. One of our favorites was the Seattle Public Library, and we spent hours exploring each floor.
When my children were young, I used to bring them to our town library and even the big Schenectady County Public Library on Clinton Street. They enjoyed story time and sometimes they’d watch movies, and I’d love sitting out in the quiet reading room alone with my book or magazines.
The library was the place where I used to do all my academic research. When working on my master’s thesis, I spent many hours at the Manchester, N.H., public library or the library at the University of New Hampshire. I was always amazed at how quickly the time would pass when I was in a quiet room and lost in my work.
I don’t spend as much time in libraries as I used to now that the Internet is available. Back in the 1990s when working on a freelance article, I’d have to go to the local library and search through books and articles to find information on the person or the event I was writing about. I loved that quiet time of looking for information. I felt like a private investigator, but today I can find much of my information with a few clicks of my computer keys.
Many of us take our library system for granted or we complain about owing a fine of two dollars for returning a DVD late, but I know firsthand what an important role libraries serve in this country.
For the past three summers I’ve spent at least two weeks teaching writing programs to middle- and high-school students at the Schenectady Library. It’s a free program, and the library is certainly not required to put on anything like this, but they do it because their mission is to promote literacy for people of all ages.
I have always liked libraries, but after being there for an extensive amount of time, I can honestly say I now love libraries. I am impressed with how professional librarians are, and I know they are not getting paid anywhere near what they are worth.
Librarians will help you find a book, a DVD and any other type of research material that you are looking for. They offer programs that bring authors to the library to discuss their work, and they also encourage people to read and discuss both popular and local books. They show films, and they also will help you find a job and teach you how to use a computer. For many people in our community, the library is their only opportunity to use the Internet, and the libraries do most of these programs for free.
Challenges of renovation
The Schenectady Library has been undergoing extensive renovations for the past year. The people who work there have had to deal with the sound of jackhammers, the ringing of trucks backing up and days without air conditioning and sometimes even water. And they’ve done this with an extraordinary amount of professionalism and patience.
I’ve seen patrons of the library express their frustration with the renovations, but the librarians have faced all this with humor and a sense of “We’ll get through this.”
Every day I’m amazed at 9 a.m. when those doors open up and some of the homeless come in. They will often retreat to their usual seat and stay in that cool, safe library till closing time at 9 p.m. For many of them the library is their home.
We love to talk about who are the real heroes in America. Well, I’ve seen them my whole life, and they’re in our community right now. They’re helping someone fill out a job application, and they’re reading an exciting story to a group of 5-year-olds, and they’re working with an older man in search of his genealogy. They’re librarians, and they work in one of the real treasures of our country, the library.
Jack Rightmyer lives in Burnt Hills. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.