Why we need libraries, even in the digital age

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on June 6, 2018. It can also be found online here.

I often looked up at the enormous World War I-era “doughboy” statute in Memorial Park, Manitou Springs, and wondered about who was immortalized with so much bronze atop so much granite.

But there was no sign nearby. Nothing to explain who he was. And so I did what we all do: I turned to the internet and searched “statue Memorial Park Manitou Springs.” A bunch of tourism websites popped up, none of which explained the mystery of the anonymous hero.

So I asked around, and learned at the Manitou Springs Heritage Center that the statue was dedicated to a boy who went by “Eber” from Manitou – Marine Corps Private George Eber Duclo – who was killed fighting in World War I at Belleau Wood, France, on June 15, 1918. The local American Legion post was named for him and was (mostly) responsible for raising his statue on a rainy Memorial Day in 1924.

Because what was available online was depressingly limited, and I wanted to know more, I started to dig. I spoke with local historians who helped me locate his high school grades and the box scores from his games with the Manitou Springs High School baseball team.

From there, I got digital. But not on the open web. I accessed online genealogy websites using my Pikes Peak Library District account, which got me Eber’s entire family tree, when they were born and where they came from. I then used the “Pikes Peak NewsFinder” service, where several volunteers with the Library’s Special Collections Division helped me find dozens of news stories from Eber’s life and era, including a footrace he won and a sweet sixteen birthday party he went to, both in 1911.

In a real sense, without the library, librarians, and other parts of the informal network of people that help to catalog and memorialize our region’s events – I never would have gotten to know Eber Duclo. And what I learned, I shared in a series of five articles in the local Pikes Peak Bulletin leading up to this year’s Memorial Day. I also wrote about the experience in a May 24 Wall Street Journal column.

I learned that without libraries, we have no past. Some history is simply not Google-able.

Which is why it’s truly a tragedy to read that former Colorado Springs City Councilman Tim Leigh wants to “roll back” the Pikes Peak Library District’s budget, as he said in a Gazette editorial this past March. Leigh intends to use a ballot measure this November to cut the Library’s funding.

Let’s set aside that, dollar-for-dollar and book-for-book, the PPLD punches well above its weight. It’s already 30 to 40 percent more efficient than comparable Colorado library systems like those in Pueblo, Denver, and Douglas County, according to the PPLD’s chief librarian.

Let’s look instead to value. In the digital age and the modern information economy, libraries build our future. Every year, when the dreaded the “summer slump” shows up – the annual fall-off in school kid learning due to our canyon-sized summer break – libraries step in to keep our kids engaged (as with the PPLD’s “Summer Adventure” Program, in which my two young daughters are now taking part).

Not limited to legs-up for little minds, libraries also have a critical role in the community building that’s our economic future’s foundation. As James and Deborah Fallows described in their recent book, “Our Towns,” in which they traveled over 100,000 miles across America to small towns and medium-sized cities in search of post-recession success stories – they found that core to the most powerful, positive, and prosperous cities was strong civic institutions like the public library.

That’s because libraries and librarians are the keepers of our stories, both real (like Eber’s) and imagined. And there is no future in a place without a story.

With this much at stake, as The Gazette’s Editorial Board recently suggested, there ought to be a substantive civic conversation on this issue. So let’s really do this one right. If former Councilman Leigh, or anyone like-minded is willing, I’ll happily agree to a public debate prior to the November vote. Anytime.

But be warned: Eber’s memory will be coming with me. And Marines never quit. Just ask the Kaiser.

 

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