Chicago Tribune writer Julia Keller has an excellent article in the May issue of American Libraries (though the article itself isn't available online), about how the gooey warm feelings of yesteryear that tends to surround most library testimonials has nothing to do with the institution of the library as it exists today.
"Such nostalgia is touching but ultimately perilous. This sentimental approach contributes to the image of libraries as antiquated placed, places sealed off like time capsules circa 1943."
And, as Keller writes, "Nostalgia won't pay the electric bill."
She should know, because newspapers are in the same boat, the victims of sepia-toned tableaus involving the whole family circled around the breakfast table listening to Father rant about the day's headlines.
And believe me, I know all about it. As a librarian, I've heard my share of tales from people involving misunderstood youth who found their solace lurking in the stacks, and of beautifully transcendent library reading rooms that filled a person's heart with silent awe. And sure, I love these stories, but they have very little to do with what I actually do on the job, and who I help on a daily basis.
Around this time last year, I participated in Blogathon to raise money for the ALA Hurricane Katrina Library Relief Fund, and as part of this, I asked people from the libraries affected in those areas to write about what their libraries meant to them.
Their stories had nothing to do with finely waxed fixtures or childhood nostalgia. They were real and immediate and vital.
From Jefferson Parish, one library patron wrote, "The Jefferson Parish Library opened soon after Katrina....it was a welcome home to many. No carpets, few staff, but the books were ok, and the computers were in full use. This was great, when so many people couldn't get into their homes."
From New Orleans, one patron wrote about the librarians at her local library who traveled into the midst of the destruction after Katrina to check on the local history resources. She wrote, "I remember the first day the library opened after Katrina. There was a rush to enter and people were lined at the door. There were no need to speak words of thanks, we could tell in each other's eyes, the smile on each other faces, the firm hugs we received, that we were all where we needed to be."
The Hancock County Public Libraries said: "Immediately after Katrina, many residents needed to contact family and friends by using the satellite telephones or the computers with wireless Internet access. Others needed copier and fax services or a table to spread out documents and fill out forms, or just a quiet, air conditioned building with clean restrooms. Some just needed a respite from the devastation outside and came in to read a newspaper, find out about friends, enjoy the air conditioning and the clean restrooms."
That's what the public library is all about, Charlie Brown.