Save the little neighborhood library

People always ask, “how did you become a writer?” It’s not an easy question. I think I could start by responding, “In the beginning, there was a blank page.” But long before that, there was a love and appreciation for the written word that I developed at my local public library.

I grew up in the late 1970s and 1980s. It was a time when kids roamed free in the summer while their parents were at work. We ate ridiculous cereal that was triple coated with sugar and frosting. Many mornings my breakfast consisted of a heaping bowl of Fruity Pebbles and a tall glass of Coke (chemically this may be a rudimentary form of Crack cocaine) . There was not even a winking attempt to make this seem healthy. It may be a basis for a child protection complaint now, but back then it was fine.  Anyway, I didn’t go to summer camps. I didn’t have a nanny. What I had was sugared cereal and two older sisters who sometimes watched me, but mostly let me do whatever I wanted.

I biked around the neighborhood. I played with my friend, Mike, who lived three doors down. And, I spent an enormous amount of time at our local public library. It was there that I learned to love reading. It started with comic books, particularly Charlie Brown and Garfield. Then, when all of those were read, it expanded to Encyclopedia Brown, the Hardy Boys and the Boxcar Children. From there, I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Then the classics: Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, Frankenstein, and poetry by Edgar Allan Poe. Then my senior year in high school, I read Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road.”  Every summer there was some sort of reading program with prizes. I loved it.

There is, now, a trend that I think is concerning.

Instead of small libraries---safe places where kids can walk or bike to without parental supervision to check out a book or a video---cities are now building mega-libraries. They are connected to recreation centers and water parks, and they also have theaters, computer labs, community meeting spaces  and homework centers. There is certainly a need for these spaces, and I don’t mean to bash them, but this is not a binary choice. Big multi-use facilities can and should coexist with little libraries.

The big libraries a/k/a multi-use facilities in bureaucratic lingo are arguably more efficient.  Unfortunately, I think in the effort to be more efficient, they lost the power of creating a space where a little ten year old like me could show up unsupervised and let his imagination grow into somebody who doesn’t just read books, but writes them as well. They are manageable. There is no need for a map or a security guard.  Having a building that kids can walk to by themselves is powerful. Dedicating one building to the idea of books and knowledge is even more powerful.

Don’t get me wrong. I love waterparks and gyms. I think computer labs are important to close the digital divide. But when everything is combined, it makes books seem like just another entertainment option instead of what it is: an intellectual foundation that can change your life.  

JD Trafford