Thursday, April 19, 2007

In Praise of Local Libraries

As you may have heard, CBS news anchor Katie Couric recently got into trouble for reminiscing about the joys of libraries. Not exactly controversial stuff, but the flap arose when it turned out her "personal" memories were in fact scripted by a young producer, who in turn had plagiarized 99 percent of the story from an op-ed piece in the not-exactly low profile Wall Street Journal. Oops.

Though the behind-the-scenes revelations about the "Couric Case" prompted some short-lived editorial hand-wringing, to my mind the content itself never got the attention it deserved, so here follows my own paean to that estimable institution, the library. Each of us probably has his or her own memories of libraries, whether as a place to goof off while pretending to do homework, or better yet as the site where we first encountered subjects that have captivated us ever since, but no matter where we fall on this spectrum you'd have to look pretty far and wide to find people who think libraries are anything but a good thing.

Tempting as it is to reiterate the obvious benefits libraries offer to the development of civic society (access to knowledge creating an informed citizenry and all that...), I'd like to focus on something it took me a while to discover: the wealth of benefits local libraries offer to the traveler. Starting with such basics as public restrooms and Internet access, when you're far from home in a strange new place, a local library can be an incredible -- and free -- resource.

When I’m traveling to new places and want to learn more about them as I pass through, I have a few favorite stops. First stop is usually a local café or diner, to sample pies and fries and to absorb local accents and conversational topics. I usually also head to the local visitor center, to scan the racks of brochures and find out about nearby "tourist attractions," but these days my favorite and most productive stops are places I never used to think twice about: local libraries. With their message boards, notice boards, local history sections, and racks of free newspapers to skim and soak up, a nice library is calming yet energizing oasis after too long on the road.

In many small towns across America, the library is about the only space where the entire community comes together, with no admission charge, and the buildings themselves often give a clear sense of a place's history and personality: Where and when they were built?? By whom, and in what style?? Is it named in memory of a local hero. A local library can clue you in to all this and much much more.

My own local library revelation came in the tiny town of Clyde, Ohio, midway between Toledo and Cleveland and best known (if it's known at all...) as the location of Sherwood Anderson's book Winesburg, Ohio. I'd done some previous detective work to know that Clyde was indeed "the place", but when I first arrived the tourism bureau knew nothing about it.... perhaps by choice, since Anderson's book doesn't exactly make "Winesburg" out to be a very desirable place. So I cruised around, walked the quaint brick-paved downtown streets, and was about to give up my quest when I chanced upon the local library. I asked the librarian if she knew anything about Winesburg, and was soon given an enthusiastic and expert introduction to a subject that a minute before had seemed buried deep beneath those brick pavements.

I had a similar mini-epiphany when in New England some years later. Hoping to gain some insight into how the East Coast elite manage to maintain their status in our supposedly egalitarian nation, I went nosing around the plush environs of the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy, where generations of Wall Street nabobs and a few Presidents have gone to school (including the incumbent, George W. Bush). The town seemed a low-key, tidy and friendly, a nice enough but basically unremarkable place until I walked across the campus lawns toward the library and had an eery sense of deja vu. For the library here was no standard-issue school high school library. Rather, the Phillips Exeter library would be a monument on any campus anywhere: Designed by master architect Louis Kahn, and recently honored on a postage stamp (see above) as one of the "12 Masterpieces of Modern Architecture." Fully stocked with fine art books and periodicals, banks of computers and the latest CDs, it almost instantly told me more than I ever wanted to know about how the "other half" learns and lives. (And if such an education sounds appealing, be prepared to cough up $30 to 40,000 a year -- not doubt a bargain, considering the wealth of opportunity on offer here.)

Back in the "real world," many local libraries have often suffered from funding cutbacks, emptying shelves and a general loss of prestige, but there are signs that they may be enjoying a quiet renaissance. Way back in the early 1980s, the quaint California coastal community of San Juan Capistrano made the national news by commissioning post-modern architect Michael Graves to design a new local library, which was built in a style suited to its location next to the town's famous mission. Soon after, Los Angeles opted to resurrect its wonderful old Central Library, a truly beautiful Art Deco ziggurat which has been resurrected as part of its never ending struggle to energize its long-abandoned downtown.

The nearest we have to a national library, the Library of Congress in Washington DC, was given a loving and modernizing scrub around the turn of the new "Y2K" millennium, and its immense holdings have been the focus of one of the most wide-ranging digitalization efforts imaginable. Around the country, other examples are there for your enjoyment, such as in Seattle, where internationally rated architect Rem Koolhaas has created a prominent new public library that's one of the most noteworthy new buildings in the world.

So, next time you find yourself in a new place, or find yourself with some time on your hands in your same old place, make your way to a library and, as they say:

"Check it out!"


Blogger Isaac said...

Hey Jamie,

My name is Isaac Gillespie, and I work in the Development dept at Triple Threat Television, a tv production company in NYC.

I am writing to you for several very specific crazy synchronistic reasons.

I am currently developing a television show starring Mickey Hart.  It can only be described as a travel show committed to combatting cultural grey-out in a way that only a member of the Grateful Dead, a man who has traveled this country constantly for 40 years, could do.

In the beginning of our research, one of the first books we bought was...yours.  Everyone in the office loves it of course, and we've been passing it around so much that it's surprising it took almost 4 days for someone to say "Holy shit!  This guy ghost wrote a book about the Grateful Dead!"

Here's the long and short of it. I would love to talk with you about the possibility of getting you involved with this show in some way.  Your style and sensibility are completely compatible with Mickey's and totally in line with what we are doing. We are bringing praise and attention to the renegade Americans who are doing what they can to resist the Wal-Mart revolution (and the McDonald's revolution that preceded it, etc. etc.).    Your knack for uncovering the hidden treasures has been a true source of inspiration and your experience and knowledge of the Dead...come on!  We have to meet you.

Oh and I love the blog.

I completely agree on the library as under-used resource for both traveller and homebody alike.  I had a personal library epiphany of my own in my college travels.  After visiting Liverpool and finding it's public library to be hospitable in a greater than average way, I discovered that the great hobo-poet W.H. Davies had discovered the same thing a hundred years prior (as recounted in his the Autobiography of a Super-Tramp).  Some great libraries never fade (tell that to Alexandria).

So that's my story.  .  Please shoot me an email at or call me at 973-224-5704.
Looking forward to speaking with you!

keep on truckin,

11:30 AM  
Anonymous paideia said...

hello--- I just discovered this blog (I dream of having the time to buy the book and take a giant "Road Trip USA" 'cross country-- my husband and I do small drives on local roads wherever we go, and, since we're moving from nyc to the midwest, will soon get to explore whole new regions!)

I had to reply to this post because 1) I completely agree with you-- libraries give you a wonderful glimpse into the true soul of a town [I'm biased, having worked in my town's public library in high school], and 2) Last summer I experienced the absolutely fascinating Salt Lake City Public library, which is truly unbelievable... built in 2003 or so, it's this enormous piece of modern architecture with a huge atrium, state-of-the-art services, beautiful places to sit and read while looking at the Wasatch Mountains, and one of the best children's rooms I've ever seen... all free, all public. Well worth a trip when you're in the southwest.

Here's one picture, in the midst of a set with many:

8:19 PM  
Blogger Jamie Jensen said...

Hey -- so someone is really out there. (Insert smiiley here...)

I'm intrigued by all this, and would love to continue the conversations.

Is a blog a good place for this?? -- let's see!

(And as well as the SLC library, I really like the newish one in Phoenix. Any more we should mention?...)

6:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I grew up in a very small town (Lexington, Illinois) in the 1950's. Living across the street from the town libray , I was able to read all of the classics, travel books and other writings that took me far away from Central Illinois.

Later in life, I worked for the Library of Congress - the largest storehouse of information in the world. Visit their web sites for a treat.

Moe in South Carolina

6:47 PM  

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