I still remember the first time I entered a library. It was an elementary school field trip, not long after my family had moved to California from Pakistan. My mom chaperoned (as she did every trip — helicoptering was her way of ensuring her children were safe in this new world), and when we got to the library, the librarian explained that we could each get library cards and check out books for free. Both our minds were blown, and visiting the library to get books became a regular part of my childhood.
I loved books, so much so that my parents would sometimes yell at me to stop being antisocial and put my books down. I’d read at home, in the car, on the school bus, in between classes and sometimes even at lunch. It became a real loss when, in college, I began to get carsick when I tried reading on buses. I loved walking through the collections at the University of Washington, which has the largest library collection of any public university, and just smelling the books. I’d look for old books that captured moments in history — census data from the 1800s in South Asia, for example — and marvel at the knowledge accumulated in the written word.
Fast forward to being a mom, and libraries took on new meaning for me. They were places for storytimes and gathering with other moms on maternity leave. They were places to escape on snowy days and let the kids have fun. So imagine my surprise when a friend who returned from a stint in Istanbul told me that there were no public libraries there. What did parents do with their kids, I marveled.
Of course, they did whatever my parents did in Pakistan with us. I know now that my mom’s shock at the free public library system was a result of the fact that free public libraries are actually a very special, wonderful aspect of life in places like the United States. How lucky are we that our predecessors thought the libraries were a public asset worth investing in.
I felt very emotional about all this when I reported on the state of public libraries in the digital age. We have a generation of people used to Googling information, not combing through card catalogs, now unsure if they even need libraries. I hope that they decide they do.
Give this article a read to see how one library system is trying to cope with the mounting challenge it faces from the Internet. (Hint: The answer is embracing technology, not fighting it.)