Lange: Love affair with libraries

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(HOST) Reading is a favorite summer activity for many people, and that reminds commentator Willem Lange of his 70-year love affair – with libraries.

(LANGE) As a child I had the good fortune to live only four blocks from the Harmanus Bleecker Library on the corner of Washington and Dove in Albany, New York.

My walk to the library ran across State Street just above the Capitol, and past a pleasant-looking tea room.  At the main desk, presided my first crush.  Tall, with rimless glasses and blonde hair rolled into a bun at the back of her head, she inspired confidence at first sight.  She had one of those pencils with the little T-shaped top for stamping due dates in borrowed books.  She had no way of knowing that, because my parents were deaf, I could read and write already.  She gave me a library card with my name on it, led me to the children’s section, ran her fingers along a few book spines, and handed me The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. (a first edition; if only I’d known!)  From there it was an easy jump to Anna Sewell, Albert Payson Terhune, and Walter Farley.

The librarian probably never knew how much she helped a geeky early reader whose social life was running home from school each day to outfox the bullies.  I’m sure I never thanked her.  Perhaps it’s not too late to try.

Democracy depends upon, more than anything else, an educated citizenry.  Just as the three branches of government act as checks on each other’s powers, we citizens act as the ultimate check on the powers of all three.  Without education, we can be led like sheep by those who possess it.  Maintaining a representative government is like walking a tightrope. It takes concentration, all the way to the other side.  And that takes education.

It’s not true that, without the Harmanus Bleecker, I wouldn’t have gotten an education.  We had plenty of books at home.  But the sight of all those seemingly endless shelves of books at the library implied that no matter how much I ever read and learned, there were still infinite untapped resources.

Thanks to the cyberage, libraries aren’t what they were, but still perform the same functions as repositories of accumulated revelation; resources for research; and warm, safe places to spend a few hours. They more than ever before provide a place for kids to study.  Catalogs are online; I can sit at my desk and search for what I need.  All this for a library card that costs me at my local library, just as in 1940, nothing.  The only fly in the ointment is the meter maid, who lurks in the bushes by the library waiting for me to say, "Heck, I’ll be only five minutes."

One of the first Americans to see the value of libraries was Benjamin Franklin, who set up a subscription library that was the first to lend books to members.  That tradition has continued unbroken, maintained by private donors, bequests, and public funds.  Please smile upon the library item on your town’s agenda – if only for the sake of some child first opening Bartholomew Cubbins.

This is Willem Lange in East Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.

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