I have a thing for libraries. I love them.
In San Francisco, where I live, the public library system works. Sure, we the taxpayers should support more branches, more hours, and more bookmobile services for the housebound. And, yes, it was our main library that set off Nicholson Baker in his famous New Yorker article. You can argue about the design of libraries - some will love the new central library in Seattle, others will hate it. But the practice of libraries is what I love - you can get any book, from anywhere, delivered to the branch nearest your home. You can renew from home. You can hear stories, wander aimlessly, see great art, hide from your day job - in a branch somewhere or in the main library. CDs, DVDs, video, newspapers, magazines, journals, obscure or pop - its all there. Its all free. Whenever I go back to NYC, I make sure to check in on Patience and Fortitude. In other cities, time permitting, the main library is always a stop for me.
And the librarians - they're the ones fighting against the Patriot Act, for the Freedom of Information Act and taking the people's stance on all the other civil liberties that the current administration is attempting to dismantle. Thank you, librarians.
I was dismayed to read that Maplewood, N.J. closed its library because it was "overrun" by school kids each day. Sure, libraries are warm, dry places for homeless people and tempting places for disruptive kids - but locking the doors? That can't be the solution.
So what for philanthropy? Well, other than being philanthropy's favorite example of 'private-public partnership' (thank you Mr. Carnegie), there is a lot about libraries that philanthropists should think about. Libraries are, in many respects, bellwethers of our communities.
Consider the ways that libraries have, as institutions, stayed relevant even as the 'demise of the book' was heard across the land and broadband access was seen as the surefire end of libraries as tech centers? The professions related to library work also have changed, and where they're headed may have lessons to teach other knowledge professions. Think about how libraries make themselves relevant and accessible to the most well-off and the least-resourced community members at the same time. What might that teach us regarding our kids clubs, our parks and rec centers, and our schools?
What about the situation in Maplewood? When kids overrun a library, vandalizing it and running amok, that is not the library's fault - it is the community's problem. Why isn't there a place for the kids to run around? Why hasn't the community put the resources into its parks or schools or after school clubs ? The library is a part of a community - it works only when the whole works. Maplewood has brought in guards so it could re-open the library during after school hours. That might work for a little while, but I hope the folks in Maplewood realize its a band aid approach. Its the rest of the community that is not working for those kids, not the library.