Fall 2000

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The Gift of the Public Library

by Dr. William Taber, NYSALB Trustee

Fall 2000 issue of Trustee

Summer is a time for recuperation by whatever means may be appropriate to our lifestyle. It may be a time of vacation, a time of changed work, perhaps just a time of release from the frigidities of winter.


However, even in summertime, deadlines should be met, and I am about to miss this one. It was moved up this year for editorial reasons, but I can't use this for an excuse. The truth is that I am about to embark on a several week journey to the West in a popup tent trailer with my cousin, Paul Girsdansky (now a high school librarian), to submerge myself (but not him) in the geological wonders and spectacles of the newer side of our continent. For weeks, I have been resurrecting my prior (amateur) knowledge of geology, studying geological history and paleogeography, pouring over maps, reading descriptions and explanations of various sites in the Rockies and the Northwest, and relating photographs with topography and places. I want to have some structure of prior knowledge with which to arm myself so that the sights that I will see will be meaningful as well as simply beautiful or curious. A mountain is not just a lump of stuff but a record of titanic events and forces that only knowledge can allow us to feel and understand when we look at its results. (Paul feels this way about baseball fields; to me, it is just a field that has been trampled upon too much.)

My mind has not been focused upon libraries this summer. The library has been functioning perfectly well without me (despite my stopping in nearly every day to pick up or return books), and the problems have been routine. But the deadline approaches; how can I switch my mind to libraries

Suddenly and gratefully, I realized that my life and mind had not moved from libraries at all; for I have been using the library intensely these last couple of months! I have been more patron than trustee.

My personal collection of books and texts are the foundation for my study, but they were soon exhausted since I had never focused before upon the west coast. The body of knowledge that became most useful to me has been the gift of the public library and of the marvel of interlibrary loan. Without the public library, this period of distraction from library issues would not have been possible.

I won't describe the interesting things that I learned about the geological history of what I intend to see except to mention that this trip (in anticipation) is now much richer than initially thought. The same gift of the public library would have occurred if my -- or your -- interest were to be in social history, mammalian life, technological innovation, art, moral innovations (this is the West Coast after all), or a thousand other subjects of curiosity, even baseball.

For us in our role of library trustee, this gift of the public library is the patron's opportunity to delve extensively into a subject matter, not just to grab a few quick morsels of fact from other sources of information.

Yes, I did go to the Internet in my search. I did go through the National Park system, many local web pages, quite a number of geologically oriented sites. They all added to the trip plans. But the key resource that shaped my thinking was the deep reservoir of books, each one of which represented years of work and thought by their authors, that I had accessed directly through the library. In fact, I almost wish that I had more time to continue reading before I leave.

As this function of the library is so valuable, we should publicize it more to our public. Here in our library is where you can really delve into an interest. Here is where you can get enough background in a subject to understand it, not just to recognize it. Here is where you can escape our snippet culture that fills the mind but makes it more confused and superficial. These are the ways to use the electronic catalog to find a lot of material about what interests you. This is why you shouldn't stop with just one book. Here is where you can get many books on a subject. This is why you may find in your search many unexpected things of interest; follow them up. (To my surprise, I now look forward to driving through Iowa -- thanks to something I found in the library.) I suggest that even small libraries nowadays can and should make a big deal publicly of the opportunities that we offer for research in depth through the use of computerized catalogs and interlibrary loans and reference help.

Ironically, the increasingly ubiquitous nature of access to Internet's quick factoids and mass media's sound bite approach to passing news may have created an opportunity to promote the public library to most of the population born after 1975 as something "new": a doorway to exploring a patron's interest in far more depth and at some leisure, a release from the usual frenetic barrage of the trivial.

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