January 17, 2010
The Quietest Victim of the Crisis: Public Libraries and American Ideals
Posted by Erik Gerding

For me, one of the most heart wrenching victims of the country’s financial crisis has been public libraries. Even Ray Bradbury could not save the Ventura, California library. This story may be nothing compared to the misery in Haiti, but I wonder what the closing of public libraries due to budget cuts says about where our country is.

My connection to public libraries is likely not unique, but it cuts across generations. My grandfather took me to the public libraries in South Jersey at least once a week in the summer. Those trips were one of those luminous memories from childhood that one hopes are among the last to go.

I remember him taking me one day to a large public library in Philadelphia. He told me that day how he would visit the public library every week after he immigrated to the United States. For him, the public library was a wonder that Europe did not have. In the midst of the Great Depression, he would marvel at students working hard at the library at all hours on Saturday and Sunday. He did not finish high school himself and was forced to work at an early age as a salesman, despite being introverted and having a talent for engineering but no talent for sales. That day he said something like, “There is no excuse here.” I could tell he wondered what he could have done had he grown up in this country.

My wife also grew up in another country, and she too marvels at the public libraries here. Our six year old son now enjoys going at least once a week to the public libraries in Albuquerque, often with his Tia Ruth (actually the wife of my retired colleague). Will his children and grandchildren be able to enjoy what we have?

If you believe in equality of opportunity, public libraries are one of the greatest assets the country has. It is a quiet institution that helps define us. With each library that closes, America is diminished.

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