Two recent articles about the difficulties faced by public library systems have got me thinking about just how important the library has been to me over the years.
Over on boingboing, Cory Doctorow has recently weighed-in on the dire situation facing Philadelphia's Free Library system (thanks to Christine Rondeau for passing this along). Then in today's Vancouver Sun, Shelley Fralic writes about the tough times our libraries are having here in BC as government funding is put on thin ice by the economy: while Vancouver's library system will probably remain intact, some smaller communities may not be so lucky.
If you don't go into a library on a regular basis - and I admit, in recent years I haven't ('cause I'm a book hoarder rather than a short-term borrower) - then the system becomes a service you take for granted until you come across stories like these. But the fact is that libraries (both public and school) were important to the development of my love of books and to the deepening of my appreciation for speculative fiction.
As a kid back east, one of the highlights of every summer was going to the Cambridge Public Library. By all rights, my favourite branch should have been the one in the Preston neighbourhood where my grandmother worked, but my true love was the Galt branch (situated near the huge old churches that ringed the public square, there's something metaphorically appropriate about having a library - a temple of knowledge and literature, on an equal footing with more common places of worship). It was vast, silent and dark - a catacomb of nooks and crannies filled with books and all kinds of other cool stuff. We'd go every couple of weeks to stock up on books, and amidst the lighter kids' fare like the Choose Your Own Adventure titles, that's where I picked up the real treasures like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This was extremely important to my development given that SF is pretty much alien to my parents, so I wasn't going to be finding anything to read that suited my interests at home.
And there were other enticements for young geeky minds in addition to the books: they had summer programming in the auditorium that included presentations for kids on all kinds of fun topics like wild animals and dinosaurs. But the best, the absolute best, was the seminar on robots! I still remember going up the stairs to the auditorium entrance on the second floor and seeing a huge metal mechanoid (or at least the shell of one) leaning on the doorframe. The presentation was from a guy who worked in robotics (can't remember which university or company though) who talked about how robots were built and what they were used for in the real world. Then came the moment that I'll never forget: as he started talking about robots in the movies and which were his favourites, he pulled out a remote control and brought a replica of R2D2 rolling out onto the stage. Somewhere around a hundred 5-10 year olds proceeded to go bonkers and you could tell that even though it was his robot, the guy onstage still thought seeing R2 up close was as cool as we did. After showing off some of R2's moves, the guy opened the floor for questions. Great guy - he took all of our questions seriously. I remember very clearly that I asked him how much wire it took to make R2, and he smiled and said "Miles and miles of it."
As if that wasn't enough, I also remember in either the summer of 83 or 84, the library set aside a very large display case to show off someone's extensive collection of Star Wars toys. No surprise, Mom nearly had to use a crowbar to pry us away from that thing to get us to go home.
I always plan to pay a visit to that library when I go back home for visits, but scheduling never allows it. I think I owe it to the old place to schedule some of the sit-downs with relatives around a trip to the library for once.
Later in my childhood, when the family moved out to BC, I made a point of acquainting myself with the local library. The Tsawwassen branch of the South Delta Library was a heck of a lot smaller than the one in Galt, but there were SF books to be had that kept me interested once I'd ploughed through the stock in the school library. Years later, as an adult, even though I don't live there anymore, I've still been known to drop in and spend a few hours reading from time to time if I've left my car with the mechanic just down the road for a little work.
As I've mentioned before, I tend to be a hoarder when it comes to books, so I don't visit the library that often anymore. That being said, because I do appreciate how important it was to my development, I know that in a couple of years when my wife and I have kids of our own, we'll definitely be regulars at our local library.