“The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man”– T.S. Eliot
One of the earliest casualties of the COVID-19 lockdown was the public library. It seemed evident, even in the weeks leading up to its demise, that this unusually vibrant and very necessary hub of community life was destined for closure – especially given its unique feature as a “hands on” sort of venue where people are frequently handling the same physical materials day in, day out.
After all, the library is a place where people are continuously leafing through pages that have been pinched, pressed, folded and gently tugged at by hundreds (if not thousands) of other patrons. Not to mention the casual touching and fondling of the many covers and spines themselves, as is the nature of some casual strollers to simply pull a book out from the shelf, examine its exterior and simply slide it back in among the other volumes before trailing their finger along the rest of the row, as though they were reading Braille.
To be sure, the public library is a hub of physical touch just as much as it is one of community and social gathering. People come to such a place for that very reason; to feel and to experience. For this reason, perhaps it is one of those rare and special exemptions in our current climate of germ phobia that we actually don’t mind fondling something that has been in intimate proximity with a complete stranger (indeed many, many complete strangers), before finding itself in our hands, in our laps, or in our children’s laps for that matter. We don’t seem to care that the very book we are holding in our hands has been in somebody else’s home for several weeks. Likewise, it seldom crosses our minds that another person may have been blowing their nose while reading it or perhaps even kept it in their bathroom for those opportune moments of reading pleasure whenever nature happened to call.
For that matter, how many of us ever questioned whether these thousands upon thousands of books were ever wiped down, let alone sanitized by the library staff once they were returned? Personally, I’ve always assumed they were returned directly to the shelves in precisely the same condition as they were when they were hastily dropped off by their previous borrowers. A little more worn, maybe, with perhaps a lingering scent of the private home from whence they briefly took residence. And while sometimes noticeable to you and I – the fresh and prospective borrower – did we even care?
The truth is that we don’t come to a library with nearly the same expectation as when we go to a bookstore. Bookstores, for the most part, are for shopping. Though I would argue that they, too, are fundamentally necessary in our society, they are there to serve a role in the marketplace and thereby aim to provide a product. The bookstore promises ownership; a small piece of collective literary content that we can call our own and with which we either build a private collection or else gift to someone else. It is a sweet and marvelous aspect of human culture, though clearly not a library.
I would argue that a library (as opposed to a bookstore) exists purely for the transmission of ideas. Like a proverbial union station of sorts, the library is responsible for the transfer of specific content from writer to reader, and thereby facilitates an education of sorts that is quite unique from other community venues. The reader is there simply to access the information provided by the book itself, and is quite happy – once the information has been ingested – to leave the book for others to enjoy and to glean from. Additionally, the fact that the books are considered completely communal in nature, coupled with the understanding that libraries are funded predominantly by the readers themselves through their tax dollars, renders the whole concept of a library as a highly-regarded social agreement of sorts. In other words, the contract is made possible because the community agrees to pay the cost of the operation while expecting, in turn, to be able to benefit from it. Furthermore, every taxpaying citizen expects that the service will be made available in equal proportions to every other citizen as well.