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What I Told the American Library Association

I recently had the privilege of addressing the American Library Association‘s “Summit on the Future of Libraries” at the Library of Congress in Washington. I was mostly there to give a talk about Think Like a Freak, but I took advantage of the setting to speak about libraries as well. Here is some of what I said:

I know you didn’t invite me here to tell you how much I love libraries … but I’m going to do it anyway.

Without the public library in the town in upstate New York where I grew up, I probably wouldn’t be standing here today. Not that I wouldn’t be alive – even I don’t think libraries are that powerful – but I don’t know if I would have become a writer.

It was in that library that I learned to read. It was in that library that I learned to write. It was in that library that I learned to do research. My first research project was a historical essay about a little overgrown Quaker cemetery up on a hill behind our house, a cemetery that nobody alive knew anything about – but the library did.

This town was called Quaker Street — a town so small that it was named not after some prominent citizen (of which there were none), or some prominent industry (of which there were none), but for the road that ran through town: Quaker Street.

Most of the towns up there weren’t much bigger. And when I was about 9 or 10 years old, I noticed something about all these towns. Not all of them had a general store. Not all of them had a diner. But they all had a library! This persuaded me – rightly or wrongly – that you absolutely couldn’t survive without a library. The only other thing that every town had was a firehouse.

Now, interestingly, technology has made the firehouse much less necessary than it was in the past. We figured out how to build houses and buildings that rarely burn down; it helps that we don’t use live flame for lighting or cooking or heat. Over the past 100 years, death by fire in the U.S. has fallen about 90 percent! That’s an astonishing improvement — the kind of improvement, however, that society kind of yawns at while finding something new to complain about.

So technology has almost made the firehouse obsolete. And what about the library? Here’s one number to consider: in New York City, where I live, the 206 public library branches in one year receive about 40 million visitors – which, quoting a report by the Center for an Urban Future, is “more than all of the city’s professional sports teams and major cultural institutions combined.” I have to admit, when I first read that number, I couldn’t believe it. More library visitors than all those places combined. And so I started checking the math. The Metropolitan Museum? Six million visitors. The New York Yankees? In a good year, four million. The New York Mets? Okay, that’s just a rounding error. But 40 million visitors to New York’s public libraries!

And what are they doing there? Well, as you all know much better than I, they’re doing a lot of things. Not just checking out books, or reading newspapers. The public library  has become a different sort of institution – with a new set of opportunities and a new set of challenges. School and university libraries too: their mission has changed, perhaps not as much as the public library’s mission, but it’s changed. In all cases, the library has become, more than  when I was a kid, a sort of public square. The library is where we meet, where we mix, where we consume and produce whatever we need to consume and produce at our given point in civilization. And for that I – and 40 million other people in New York – are grateful. Even if you never step foot in a library, there is reason to be grateful for this institution.

Now, interestingly – to me at least – there is nothing about the library’s continuing strength that was foreordained. Like a lot of institutions, it is to a  degree the product of an accident of history. If a relatively small group of people hadn’t decided, many years ago, that the public library was an institution that deserved funding, and tending, and recognition, would we still have them? If, that is, the library were an idea that were proposed anew today, would it come into existence? I’m not so sure. Can you imagine the conversation with the publishers? Yes, we’d like to buy one copy of your book and then let 1,000 people read it, for free. Ha! All books would come equipped with some self-destruction device that would blow it up after five readings.

Thanks to the A.L.A. for having me.