Book smart girls from midwestern railroad towns seldom venture beyond the rusty tracks. But transcendence of an intellectual and artistic nature can occur. Most significant among those influences which can afford this transcendence is access to a public library. The powerful effect the institution ultimately had on me was to give me the opportunity to encounter access to the works of philosophers, playwrights and literary artists. In the words of one of the finest American poets, Robert Frost, in reference to choosing paths, “It has made all the difference.”
My first experience with libraries began in the bygone days of card catalogs and index cards stamped with the due date and the request for “quiet, please”. I always felt the silence was an appropriate display of reverence for the significance of the institution as much as a show of courtesy to the patrons. Libraries have changed since then to accommodate a changing world. Just as teachers have become learning facilitators and personnel departments, human resource centers; libraries have become media centers. Banks of computers take center stage while biographies and fiction shelves line the wings. But still I am quietly stirred when I step inside the door. It is possible that I may find a book that will be a changing force in my life.
Throughout my life it is reading that has given me inspiration, solace, strength because it brought about the most change in my outlook and my vision. It has sustained me through difficult times. Reading good writing has given me the ability to recognize quality, to acknowledge vision and insight, and to appreciate the beauty and grace of the language of a gifted literary artist. I have not become anyone particularly extraordinary, but I take pride in what I have been able to do to make a positive difference in other people’s lives. I have taught students how to interpret literature in competition at public speaking contests. I wrote adaptations of Shakespearean plays and directed young children in their performance. And most importantly, I have raised a son with a profound appreciation of literature, drama and film who inspires others with his gifts. Yet though without wealth, or notoriety or even claim to the traditional measure of success, I continue to strive to make a contribution through the wealth I have acquired through reading from the works of literary artists from every era in time, culture and perspective. The extraordinary thing about the enrichment I have acquired through the library is that the treasure contained within the library is inexhaustible. Although I am never without a book in progress, I cannot hope to read every volume of literary merit.
Some say that the book itself is dead and sterile glass and steel cathedrals containing nothing but electronics and lighted screens will replace the libraries. I cannot imagine such an empty universe. Will the world of the future even become the one Bradbury envisioned, one that has annihilated imagination, creativity and original thought? If so, I would consider myself a likely member of the fictional book people of Fahrenheit 451, a walking, breathing volume in the human library (my preference The Razor’s Edge).
Overall, I believe that my destiny was not limited to the confining small town consensus of the accepted traditions that separated races, limited the expectations for women and closed off acceptance for the individual different in any variety of ways. Without the influence of public education and access to a world of divergent opinion offered through the public library, I would be poor in spirit, a sadder fate than other forms of poverty. I would not have had anything to bequeath to my extraordinary son who worships and celebrates Shakespeare had I not mined the riches of libraries all of my life. In a democratic society equal access affords the citizen the power to alter one’s destiny. No citizen is denied access to a public library. After all, literature is written for and by people from both sides of the railroad tracks. For as long as there are institutions that celebrate literature, a difference can be made in anyone’s life just as it has been made in mine.