Monday, January 31, 2011
Brad Parks, Guest Blogger
Exactly twenty-six years and five months ago, at the end of a hot and dusty Connecticut summer, in a time of desperation the likes of which I can now barely describe, I committed a heinous crime.
I stole from a public library.
Let me explain. I was 10 years old. I had a bad case of swimmer’s ear, which meant I couldn’t go in the neighborhood pool. For the first time in my life, all I could do is read. And the book that ignited my imagination was “Gentle Ben,” Walt Morey’s classic story about a boy and his pet grizzly bear.
I think of “Gentle Ben” often these days, every time I read about another library having to slash its budget, eliminate staff or close down branches. It makes me wonder if some kid out there is going to lose a chance to find his own “Gentle Ben,” a book that fuels a lifelong love of written words.
There’s no question this is a discouraging time for libraries, those who value them and those who work in them. Across the country, library budgets are being assaulted, and not just with the kind of single-digit cuts that can be swallowed by bumping down the thermostat a few degrees. These are major, double-digit hacks.
I got an e-mail last month from a dear librarian friend of mine talking about just how devastating it’s been. She’s the director of a large library system in New Jersey and she catalogued her list of woes – having to fire dozens of employees, putting her entire staff on rotating furlough, closing down branches.
But the really heartbreaking part of the e-mail was when she talked about her fear of what might come next, how paralyzing the uncertainty was, and how she felt like it was interfering with how well she could do her job.
And, believe me, I understand how that feels. I know what it’s like to see good friends and valued colleagues walk out the door because no one wants to pay their salaries anymore; to live with the anxiety of knowing the worst might not be over; to feel like you are failing a public that put its trust in you to deliver something so vital to Democracy.
I know, because I used to be a newspaper reporter.
And, yeah, I let it get to me. It got to everyone at times. Newsroom morale was in the tank. We walked around like zombies half the time. We consumed endless energy speculating when the next staff cut or pay cut was coming. It was depressing and debilitating.
So it’s hard to watch the public library, this institution I value so much, go through its own bloodletting.
I’m not here to opine about how wrong it is from a policy standpoint (though, unquestionably, it is). I’m not here to debate the wisdom of savings pennies at the library when there are still twenties and fifties to be saved elsewhere (though, really, libraries are such a slim portion of municipal spending, can’t you balance your budget somewhere else?). I’m not even here to point out that the library is the one public amenity that serves absolutely everyone in a community (though it does).
I’m here to say to all you library scientists out there:
Don’t give up.
Don’t let it get to you.
Don’t be discouraged.
We need you. Now more than ever. Many of our most cherished American ideals – like the concept that a poor, mixed-race kid could grow up to be President – are predicated on the notion that knowledge is available to all, not just those wealthy and privileged enough to afford Kindles and trips to Barnes & Noble.
And, yeah, it’s easy to get dragged down in the gloom. But if I learned one thing from watching a newspaper melt down around me, it’s that you can also make the choice not to get derailed by it. You can realize you’re still fortunate enough to do a fulfilling job, a profession that you (and a whole lot of other people) really value, whether they remember to stop and take the time to say it or not.
For me, I worked hard to find satisfaction in putting a well-written story in the newspaper, something that touched people, exposed a wrong, or made the world better in some small way. Those kinds of victories are always out there to be found. You just have to remember to look for them and hold onto them.
Think back to why you became a librarian. Was it because the duly elected knuckleheads on the town council would show the wisdom to keep your funding at an appropriate level? Was it because of some action in the state legislature? Of course not. It’s because you love books and connecting readers to the wisdom and wonder that lies inside of them.
It’s because somewhere out there, there’s a kid looking for his own “Gentle Ben.” Please help him find it.
Just make sure he returns it.