A few years ago I wrote this essay in support of the library when it was facing deep budget cuts.
A few days ago what I had hoped would be a stroll down memory lane turned into a sad event. More than 50 years ago I began visiting the Library. During high school I made almost daily trips to the Library. Now there is a sign on the main door relating the likely consequences of proposed budget figures. How sad. A brief visit refreshed my memory of the lovely wooden benches, the dynamic of quiet activity of many sorts, the variety of people, and the blend of antique and new.
On the way out I was again confronted with the sign about budget problems and tried to think of a way to write about the importance of the library. A good metaphorical image presented itself – the old tree with great spreading branches. Allow me to say first why I feel compelled to write, then just why the library is important in ways not easily measured in terms of dollars and sense.
When I was five years old my first experience in the Library was to be told that nice boys do not wear hats in the Library. These days I am a professor in a library and information science doctoral program, spending much of my time working on using computers for information seeking. It is often surprising to my colleagues that I am still a champion of public libraries, even when I point out their many problems. Having written several books, produced several films, and published numerous scholarly articles, I think I have credentials to speak about the Manchester Library. I am one of the branches on that tree.
There are two things about a good public library that are not available on the internet: the value added help of librarians and staff to patrons, and the atmosphere created by the bricks and mortar – not simply the interior of the building but the knowledge that the building stands as a testament that the city honors knowledge. It is true that much material can be found on the internet or on television or in the flood of magazines now published. A trip to Barnes & Noble offers coffee and cheesecake along with browsing. Why keep the library open? Why provide services for such a small portion of the citizenry?
Because it is not simply any individual visit, any individual book found, any number of books that goes out the door that are the measures of the value of the institution. Librarians provide better-trained service than bookstore employees. Even that is not the point. The point is that the library provides all the citizens with a hotbed of potential. It provides the city with deep potential. It provides each individual a great potential. My published work on photography is directly and deeply rooted in visits to the art room – not once or twice but over several years. My entry into Dartmouth College is largely due to the wide variety of interests and knowledge nurtured in the Library – the place where I could explore way beyond the textbooks of my good high school education at Central High School. My major in Greek and Latin Literature was spurred as much by finding books on Roman history and audio records of Latin poetry, as by the course work in high school. My graduate work in film production rests deeply in the same visits to the library, not only for photography and art, but also for the literature ranging from Dostoyevsky to Robert Frost that helped develop ways of looking at the world. My Ph.D. work at Berkeley was deeply influenced by the discussions with librarians in Manchester who earnestly engaged with me when I was a high school student – sometimes helping me find a particular book, but often simply chatting about ideas.
I cannot believe that I am the only one for whom an experience or set of experiences at the Manchester Library was fundamentally important. Just as there are many branches on that great old tree, I suspect there are many branches that have sprung from the Library. Could the Manchester Library exist on a smaller budget? Surely. Would many people still find value in the Library. Of course. Would librarians still influence patrons of all ages and sorts? Yes.
However, the librarians would know on a daily basis and patrons would likely know occasionally that the City of Manchester no longer values the nurturing of minds. In a time when fiscal realities loom, it is tempting to look to branches that can be pruned with no evident ill effects. Yet, we must remember that any library’s impact is not measured simply in the number of books that go out the door or the number of reference questions answered or the number of people who accessed the internet. It is measured in the future, in the profusion of branches and where they spread. The branches may spread into places never foreseen by the Library, tax payers, and patrons. The Library shows that the City of Manchester privileges itself, its citizens and institutions, by creating its own branch of what is likely humankind’s greatest invention – the written body of human knowledge.
I would urge that the City not cut off branches from the great tree or stifle more from growing.
Note: I was born in Manchester in 1947, went to Wilson School and Central High, lived and worked in Manchester summers during my years at Dartmouth and after graduation. While I now live outside New Hampshire, I continue to visit my parents in Manchester. My profound gratitude for the Library remains.