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Why public libraries are important

May 17, 2009

Fargo just opened its brand new downtown library this spring. Fargo was hugely overdue for a bigger library and this one is twice the size of the original. Though the north and south branches were open before the downtown library closed for demolition and reconstruction, they were expanded during the time that the downtown library was closed.

Public libraries are important. Hugely so. The best ones have large collections, but room to grow, and they don’t weed out books just because they haven’t been checked out in a few years. This new library is modern and filled with color and natural light. Not bright, garish colors, but deep colors: sky blue, red/orange, lime green, golden yellow – and accented by white and greys. It’s a pretty inviting place.

It’s also chock full of all kinds of lovely books, and the non-fiction section is extremely well-organized by subject and there’s an extensive cookbook section. (You knew this had to relate to food somehow, right?) I spent a couple hours on this sunny, gorgeous Sunday reading cookbooks and writing down recipes. Art Smith has some good ones (even if he did work for Disney and Oprah) and I’m excited to try his cream cheese pie crust. Why? Because despite the historical and colloquial devotion to lard and Crisco, I don’t like the bland, almost tasteless pale flaky crust. I prefer something buttery, but substantial and nicely golden brown. Which is why I think the cream cheese is a nice touch.

But I digress. The point of this post has to do with something that might traditionally be considered a big-city value: a well-stocked and worldly library. But knowledge that is free and open to anyone, regardless of race, gender, age, and/or socio-economic status is something I value deeply.

I grew up going to the library. I remember graduating from the children’s section to the adult via the sci-fi/fantasy section. I remember secretly exploring religion in the dusty, seldom-checked-out tomes of the reference section. I remember seeing old men sleepily reading newspapers in padded chairs and homeless men loitering and obnoxious children screaming and running and exasperated mothers “shush!”ing. It was sometimes annoying, but it reminded you of what the city was really like. The library brought (and continues to bring) people downtown, keeping up the heart of the city.

Libraries are subversive. They celebrate banned books, they educate children and teens on topics other than are taught in school or by parents, they don’t care how much money you do or do not have because everything is free, and most of all, they trust everyone. Yep, they trust you. You give them your address and sign up for a piece of plastic with your information on it and then they give you books. Yep, give them to you for free, with the expectation that you’ll bring them back in 7-21 days. It’s when you break the trust that it starts to cost you. And while you’re in the library, you respect other people by keeping things quiet, by letting people pass in the aisles between shelves, by folding the newspapers nicely and putting them back where they belong. Libraries have an unspoken etiquette that help people respect people different from them, and help respect public property.

The Fargo library is particularly lovely because unlike the old one, which was small and crowded and grey and beige and dingy with flourescent lights and no windows, you actually want to spend time there. I love the huge floor-to-ceiling windows that let in so much natural light, even though I know it’ll be a pain to heat come winter. I like the colors, even though they will probably look dated in 10 years. And I like the half-empty shelves, because I know then that the library has plenty of room to grow without having to get rid of older books (which are often better! Case in point: cookbooks).

I like libraries. Haven’t been to yours in a while? Maybe you should check it out! If only for the cookbook section.

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