Thursday, May 16, 2013

We Are All There for the Same Reason

If you’re the sort of person who’s inclined to stop by a blog like this one, there’s a pretty decent chance you’re the sort of person who’s interested in libraries and what happens to them.

But in case you haven’t heard, what’s happening to libraries right now is not very good.

This week, along with many other people, I rolled my eyes at an article that does not bear linking here written by a man who had not set foot in a library in many years and yet was completely convinced that they were musty old relics, well past their usefulness, that would not be missed if they were all shuttered tomorrow because there is Google.

I have been fighting for libraries for many years now, and of all the eye-rollingly dense arguments against them I have heard, that is certainly the least original one, and yet, it never fails to drive me crazy.

Oh, you don’t use, value, or understand libraries, so OF COURSE, you are very qualified to speak about them.

When somebody like me speaks out in defense of libraries, an uncharitable person might think, Of course the librarian and YA author doesn’t want cuts to her precious libraries for she knows what side her bread is buttered on. But that’s sort of a backwards way of looking at it.

The truth is, I’m a writer and a librarian because of every library I ever set foot in between the ages of 8 and 18, and because of every librarian who ever helped me find a good book or track down an answer, or left me alone because they knew I was feeling prickly and wretched and teenaged and wanting to be left alone. But they let me know that I could do that in the library because it was my place and it belonged to me and I was welcome to be there, prickly or not.

That is a nice story, and I daresay it is a common story, but it is the kind of story that makes someone disinclined to support libraries shrug their shoulders and say, “Why should my tax dollars support that?”

But it is also a story that I have in common with the kids who spend every single day at the library over the summer and the families who check out giant bagfuls of books every week, and the people learning English, learning to read, learning to knit, writing books, doing homework, figuring out how to prepare legal documents, registering to vote, volunteering, and job-hunting.

My library is up the street from Skid Row, and the thing that the staff and social workers and mental health professionals tell the vulnerable populations they work with is the same thing Paul Krugman told his readers last week on his New York Times blog:

We go to the library because it is a nice place and it improves the quality of our lives.

No matter where we come from, we are all there for the same reason.

Right now, the New York Public Library is facing $47 million dollars in cuts to their libraries, cuts that would close branches, reduce hours, and eliminate staff. Library visits, program attendance, and circulation of materials were all up in 2012, but still, the cuts are threatened.

The slogan for the letter-writing and outreach campaign to stop these cuts is “No place does more for more New Yorkers.”

I think that’s putting it modestly.

This is the time of year when library budgets are decided by city councils and boards of trustees. Some of those people understand why it is important to adequately fund nice places that make our lives better. Some of them do not. Of this latter group, I believe that most of them maintain a view that the library is a noble, if outdated institution that froze in time at precisely the moment they last set foot in one, which was sometime around 1975.

That is why, when people who don’t use, value, or understand libraries start cutting their budgets, it’s important that the rest of us stand up and tell them exactly what they’re cutting.

If you’re a New Yorker, take a minute and write a letter on behalf of NYPL. And even if you’re not, it’s a good time of year to check in with your local library and ask what their funding situation looks like. Will they have to cut hours, materials, or staff this year? Ask what you can do to help.

I keep coming back to two sentences I wrote before:

We go to the library because it is a nice place and it improves the quality of our lives.

No matter where we come from, we are all there for the same reason.

That seems like a small and simple and insignificant thing, but I don’t think you could say those words about any place other than a library.


Mary McCoy is a librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library, and has been a contributor to On Bunker Hill and the 1947project, where she wrote stories about Los Angeles's notorious past. Her debut novel, DEAD TO ME, will be published by Disney-Hyperion in 2014. It's a YA mystery set in Golden Age Hollywood about a teenage girl investigating the attempted murder of her aspiring film star sister.


  1. Well done. I have visited three different libraries this week alone and benefitted not only from materials I couldn't find anywhere else, but also from knowledgable people that I couldn't meet anywhere else. I can't imagine life without libraries.

  2. Thanks Aaron, that makes me so happy to hear! While I was writing this, I did a thought experiment and tried to imagine what I would have turned out like if there was no such thing as a library. I could not do it. I take this to mean that I would have wasted away from boredom and ignorance.

  3. Well said. I'm like you--I just can't imagine who I'd be if it hadn't been for public libraries, and I had the benefit of a home library and two parents who were avid readers. What about kids whose parents can't or don't care to buy books, or can't afford a home computer and Internet access? We need good libraries for the same reason we need good public education: because it benefits everyone when kids grow up reading.

  4. I'm a product of libraries too, and a big library booster today. It alarms me to think of libraries as an endangered resource, especially since I think they often fill the void that bookstore closures have left, giving a sense of community around books and offering programming (author events, etc) that more bookstores once offered. One important role of libraries is to connect readers and writers (or other professionals), not just readers and books. There is a very human, communal aspect of libraries that we desperately need to hang onto.

  5. Hear, hear! Fantastic post -- and much needed.


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