Growing up, one of my absolute favorite places to spend time was at the library. I would wander among the tall shelves of books, inhaling the musty smell of aged paper and listening to the echoes of my footsteps. I can close my eyes today and take myself back to the various libraries from 20 and 30 years ago. Unfortunately, I cannot revisit them and expect to see the same surroundings. As we have moved into the digital age, fewer and fewer people are using the library for books and instead are using it for internet access. Libraries have been forced to cut back on book offerings and in some cases, some libraries have become mostly digital offering their services through e-readers. While I recognize the importance of progress, it is with some sadness that I contemplate the current state of libraries today. I cannot imagine what my childhood would have been like without the library.
Early on I grew to appreciate the value of a good book. I relied on an author’s ability to transport me via my imagination to another world, another time, another life. Of all technology in the world, it is the book that has sustained importance in my life. All who know me can vouch for my love of books, especially if they have helped move me over the years. I can hear every grunt from a friend hauling box after box of books asking, “More books? Really Colleen, Why do you have so many books?” All I did was smile. I love my books. I go back and reread my favorite stories. I have favorite books for particular moods and of course books related to the areas that I teach.
It was in this vein that I resisted the e-reader until this past summer. I did not want to abandon my support of books. There is nothing quite as satisfying as physically turning the page and not only feeling the book but smelling the pages as you read. But last summer, I caved and bought an e-reader and since its purchase, my sleep-deprived state has increased as I spend more nights reading rather than sleeping. I love that I can take my e-reader anywhere and read. It was helpful during a particularly long power outage recently when I was able to read in the dark. I still love my books and nothing will ever compare to the experience of reading an actual book, but it is so much more convenient for me to have certain books handy at all times, without breaking my back lugging the physical texts around.
So when I go through libraries today, I do so with a small sense of disappointment. I still remember my Dewey decimal system and wonder if kids today still learn about that or not. I remember what it was like in grad school, hauling journals to a copy machine to copy the most important articles I needed for my thesis. Staying until the library closed and being there first thing when it opened again.
I had never wondered this before last year when I was going over my syllabus with a new class and reviewing my scholarly source requirements for the research paper. I noted how using Wikipedia and Cliffnotes was not acceptable and one of the students raised her hand in a panic. She asked if she cannot use Wikipedia, how is she supposed to research the topic for her paper. I remember standing in front of the class and counting to 10 in my head before replying, trying to maintain a professional demeanor as I tried to wrap my head around that question. How had she graduated high school and never done research outside of Wikipedia? Sadly, my sarcasm could not be held out of my tone as I advised her to start at the library. When she followed up by asking if there was a library on campus, I nearly slammed my head into the podium. Calmly, I gave her directions but then she followed up with complaining that she would not be able to do all of her research from her home. I can imagine the look on my face as I tried to remain calm and not look as shocked and disappointed as I felt as I rolled into the “this is college” lecture. And of course, giving that lecture makes me feel like Sgt. Hulka addressing the class of new recruits in the 1981 movie “Stripes.”
I wonder if kids today are growing up loving books the way I did. I know that my nieces are but that may be due in some part to my influence, encouraging them to read, to go to the library. It is so much easier to plug into a movie or television show but nothing really beats your own imagination. I hope that kids today are reading and letting their imagination run wild. I hope that kids are taking some time to unplug from all of the distracting social media and curling up with a good book and relaxing. We all need some down time from time to time, regardless of how old we are. I just hope that future generations are being taught to use their imagination and embrace reading as my generation had been.