I have an emotional attachment to libraries. When I was young, our family didn’t have a car. Before I was old enough to travel by myself, my mother regularly took me on the bus to the library. I was a voracious reader and there was an absurd limit on the number of books one could take out so this trip was a frequent occurrence.
Libraries stayed in my affection and my routine from that time on. As a homeschooling mom, our family was well known at our local branch. This should help explain why, despite the many momentous events happening in the United States and around the world that will impact millions of lives in frightening ways, I don’t see my concern this week as trivial. Retaining the structure of civilization no matter what turbulent maelstroms are swirling around our cultural foundations not only keeps us better able to cope with life’s vicissitudes but actually affects the bigger picture as well.
Years ago, as part of a program that helped a beleaguered New York City become a desirable location again after years of decay, the police department began cracking down on “small” crimes. They started fining and arresting people for jumping the turnstile in the subway, for blocking intersections with their cars rather than stopping at the red light before entering the intersection and they paid attention to littering. Lo and behold, when they enforced the law on minor infractions, an atmosphere of law and order prevailed that helped reduce major criminal activity as well. As things go, that style of policing seems to be out of vogue and New York is dirtier and more crime-ridden again, but the point stands. Sometimes, focusing on the micro-issues keeps the macro-issues under control.
Hence my sadness at hearing that an increasing number of library systems are choosing to forego fining readers for returning books after their due date. Recently, Chicago joined the list of cities determined to end “library shaming.” Inevitably, articles on the subject trot out middle-aged women who have avoided libraries since their ten-year-old selves couldn’t locate their copy of Anne of Green Gables or sitcoms where characters wallow in shame decades after losing their copy of The Yearling.
A spokesman for the Urban Library Council said, “We’d rather have you come to the library and engage in our services,” rather than feeling guilty. I admit to being a guilt-inducer of the highest order when my children were younger. I’m not saying for sure, but I might have implied that if books weren’t returned on time and in good condition, pictures of the miscreants would appear in the post office right under those featuring the FBI’s most wanted list. I wasn’t trying to stop my children from reading library books and, indeed, we took out —and returned—thousands. Rather, I was trying to instill the following messages that I had been given.
- Growing up is about accepting responsibility in exchange for being granted more privileges. I recall practicing writing my name in cursive neatly enough so that it would fit on the small library card I desired. Even at the age of six, being allowed to take out books under my own name rather than having them taken out by my mother, signaled that I was getting older and more mature. I needed to prove that with the dedicated hard work of perfecting my signature. (Cursive, of course, is no longer a part of many schools. You will not be surprised to hear that studies show that writing in cursive plays a role in brain development.)
- I am expected to be a responsible member of society. My nation/state/city/neighborhood/family have so much to offer me. In return, I, too, need to give to them.
- I must treat others as I want to be treated. If I want access to thousands of well-kept books, I need to treat them properly and return them on time so that others can have similar access.
- I must be accountable if I mess up. Did I take a book to the park and leave it there? Did I spill a glass of milk on a book? Did I lose track of when my book was due? I need to face the librarian and pay my fine. Wouldn’t we be better off if today’s children practiced owning up to mistakes from an early age on minor issues?
I’m sure there were more lessons I learned as I was given the key to the wondrous domain of the library. My children learned those lessons too. I truly see the change in libraries today as a tragedy. Libraries shouldn’t be about inculcating children into the latest political fad (such as today’s Drag Queen Story Hours) or providing children with a place to play computer games. They shouldn’t be about a child’s “right” to books without any expectations. They should be about how reading opens millions of doors and how honored and grateful we should be to join the ranks of those granted such a powerful key.