March 31, 2023
Having worked at Mid-Continent Public Library for over two decades now, it amazes me how many people continue to have misconceptions about libraries and those of us who work in them. When most people think of the public library, they still imagine a boring building with rows and rows of books being watched over by a white-haired old woman with glasses who insists on shushing you any time you make the tiniest bit of noise.
This image of the library is one where nothing exciting happens except the occasional outrageous fine because someone forgot to return a book for 47 years (true story, read about it here). However, libraries are far more exciting than you might think and have been at the center of many shocking events and controversies.
For instance, The Library Book by Susan Orlean recounts a fire that took place at the Los Angeles Public Library on April 28, 1986. The blaze, which burned for more than 7 hours, destroyed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. Was is arson? Sadly, the intentional destruction of places of knowledge is common throughout history. The Library of Alexandria was set ablaze way back in the year 48 BC!
Libraries have also been places where the cause of social justice has come to the forefront. During the Civil Rights era, it was not only lunch counters that activists were trying to desegregate, but libraries. The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South by Wayne A. Wiegand and Shirley A. Wiegand chronicles the sometimes-violent attempt to integrate the libraries of the South. Do you find it hard to imagine having to fight for the right to have access to books? Or maybe it’s not so hard to imagine.
Libraries have also been frequent targets of thieves. In Torn from Their Bindings, Travis McDade tells the story of the theft and pillaging of antique illustrations and maps by a broke antiques dealer who was trying to find high-quality prints to sell. What better place than the library where he could “steal” for free? The countless rare books that were wrecked was devastating. High crime indeed...
Libraries don’t float on air, of course. They sit on land. And in the case of the New York Public Library—valuable land. Patience and Fortitude by Scott Sherman recounts an attempt by some property developers to sell off branches of NYPL and gut the iconic Fifth Avenue building, all so that they could obtain some prime real estate. Greed personified!
The above examples are just a few of the numerous intriguing incidents throughout history that have occurred at these so called “boring” buildings. They also highlight how important it is to protect the public library and guarantee that the access to information they provide remains unimpeded.
Oh, and if you want to know what an actual librarian looks like these days, check out This is What a Librarian Looks Like by Kyle Cassidy. Hopefully the photos will banish the old lady in glasses stereotype!
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