*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on January 22, 2018. It can also be found online here.
I’ve always liked libraries, but never knew how vital they are to society. They’re our community’s memories and dreams, and where our collective past, present, and futures collide.
It started in the summertime. Mom used to take us to the library, where I’d lay on a beanbag chair for hours, gobbling up kid versions of classic literature like “Treasure Island” and “Robinson Crusoe.”
Today, I use them for research, whether it’s my dissertation or to dig into the story of Marine Corps Pvt. George Eber Duclo, the first boy from Manitou Springs to die in World War I. I also bring my daughters to our local Manitou Springs library – they love the endless rows of children’s books, the puzzles, and the kid-friendly touchscreen computers they use for digital drawings.
But that’s just our family. What about others? What’s a library good for?
Let’s first describe the regional terrain. Pikes Peak Library District has been nationally recognized, and with a little over 400 staff, augmented by 1,400 committed volunteers, it manages to serve our area’s more than half a million residents.
Libraries expand our minds and make us better citizens. As Fredrick Douglass said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” Access to a library’s never ending supply of books ensures this freedom will be never ending.
More specifically, two-thirds of patrons use libraries for books, a 2016 Pew Research survey finds, which is important in an age when physical books recede as bookstores close and Amazon grows. Nearly 70 percent said they go to the library for a safe place to read, study, and think. About half go to browse media, like magazines and newspapers.
There’s also a growing cohort that go to use computers and the internet – nearly 30 percent. Moreover, 7 percent of “all Americans age 16 and older have used libraries’ Wi-Fi signals outside when libraries are closed.” For some, libraries never stop serving the public.
That’s how libraries narrow the digital divide. Because about a third of Americans cannot afford home internet access, librarians are often the ones meeting this need, typically with inadequate means. A University of Maryland report tells us that 87 percent of urban libraries report having insufficient computers, and only 17 percent of rural libraries provide appropriate broadband speeds.
And whether you’re an adult applying for a job, a kid doing a school report, or a citizen registering to vote, more and more of our public lives have moved online. The internet has become another necessity, alongside power and light.
Libraries can also be a parent’s lifeline: I recently watched another parent check out several educational and kid-friendly television shows and movies, presumably because their family couldn’t afford the high cost of cable or subscription streaming service.
Libraries are even crucial during real emergencies. Fifty-five percent of those interviewed in the Pew survey said libraries contribute to the common good in a crisis. During Hurricane Sandy in 2013, or even more recently in Baltimore during riotous protests, libraries became refuges, shelters, and even provided food to those in need.
In Manitou Springs, where I live, a flood emergency is a constant concern, and so it’s easy to see how our little library on a hill could quickly become such a sanctuary.
While the Manitou Springs branch punches above its weight, it clearly needs a boost to fulfill its promise to the public. Built in 1910 with financial support from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, the library is often described as “historic.”
But this age means it hasn’t changed to meet the times: it is too small, doesn’t provide sufficient space for community-gatherings, has only one shared bathroom, and is handicap inaccessible. This, especially, is a tragedy: long-term residents with physical difficulties cannot continue to use the library they’ve loved for years. Thankfully, the city of Manitou Springs has commissioned plans to rectify these flaws and expand the city’s hub for knowledge and information.
Libraries fill our community’s needs: without them, our friends and neighbors lives would be harder. And libraries expand our community’s future: without them, our children’s limits will be lower. So visit them, support them, grow them.