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Illustration by Rich Lillash

How could I live without a real library?

By Linda Willing

When I moved from the Denver metro area to a small mountain town 20 years ago, my life improved in most ways. I was done with traffic and crowds and happy to find dark skies and a wealth of wilderness trails. I was sure I could live without big-box stores or specialty groceries and be happy with a restaurant scene that centered on the local barbecue place. I was happy with my choice—until I went to the local library.

At that time, the town library measured 700 square feet, nearly half of which was taken up by children’s books. And I wasn’t encouraged by a display at the entrance that featured serial mysteries and romance novels, neither of which interested me. I remember walking out that first day depressed and wondering whether I’d made a mistake, after all. How could I live without a real library?

But this was my new home, so I returned to give the collection a second look. The adult fiction shelves lined one short wall, organized alphabetically into four-foot-wide sections containing maybe 25 books apiece. I decided that as my introduction to my new community I would travel through the library shelf by shelf, choosing one book to read from each section and giving that book my best effort before moving on. I started at the top left shelf—fiction in the As.

I was quickly swept down a rabbit hole lined with books. Now that my options were even more limited than when I had first walked through the library door, suddenly a whole new world opened to me. In this way I discovered Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and spent evenings by the wood fire curled up with Rick Bass. I surrendered to the spell of Octavia Butler and had fun with Helen Fielding and Nick Hornby. Each book I selected was one I would almost certainly have left untouched if I’d had the endless choices to which I’d previously been accustomed.

I think about this experience now when I hear about libraries going digital, both at colleges and even in high schools. Some libraries are eliminating physical books altogether. One state university planned to get rid of its stacks, and replace them with a food court, before student and faculty pushback halted the initiative—for now. Some public schools in Texas have fired librarians and converted library space into student detention centers. A librarian in New Mexico told me that her town was planning to cut the budget for real books because circulation was down subsequent to COVID.

The first time I heard all of this I was appalled. And heartsick. For me, one of the major purposes of a library is the chance to get lost in the stacks. When I was a freshman at Penn, most of the required readings for my classes were held in the Rosengarten Reserve Library in the basement of Van Pelt, but I never limited myself to that place. Every time I went to the library I would wander off to the upper floors, aimlessly perusing the endless bookshelves. I loved exploring other campus libraries too: soaking in the High Victorian Gothic details at the Fisher Fine Arts Library while I browsed architecture magazines and sat in awe of large-format art books, or watching business students practice making deals from a corner of the Lippincott Library. Being in the library, I felt like the wealthiest person on the planet. Here I was in the best bookstore in the world, and everything was free!

Libraries are more than resource centers; they are refuges. They are places where you can be alone, at any age, and no one bothers you. During a difficult year when I moved in fourth grade, the library at my new and unwelcoming school became my sanctuary. It was there I first met up with Loretta Mason Potts and the Borrowers and dreamed about running free with Misty of Chincoteague. Later I wandered around the town library, with its mysterious mezzanines, and accidentally discovered Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle in the seventh grade.

You simply cannot have the same experience in a digital universe. Digital searches are focused rather than free ranging. There is no peripheral environment. How many times have I gone looking for a book on a particular subject or by a particular author, only to have my gaze diverted by something on the shelf above or behind me? I can spend hours roaming the stacks, making serendipitous connections and life-changing discoveries.

Being in a library surrounded by books provides an opportunity that is not possible in the digital world. You can pause, look at a book’s cover, feel its weight in your hands, flip open to a random page. Perhaps most importantly, you can check out books on similar topics that reside near the one you may have originally sought out. Digital searches often result in either too much information or not enough. Cast a wide net with a broad term, and you’ll trigger an avalanche of options that are impossible to sort through. Target a specific book, on the other hand, and you’ll only get what you were looking for—nothing more. It’s like being shown a single point on a map, whereas the physical stacks of a library immerses you in an entire landscape. 

Don’t get me wrong: the digitization of books is a wonderful thing. It makes vast resources accessible to a huge number of people, and lightens your suitcase on long trips. Technology can be a boon to library lovers as well. My own tiny local library has since joined a statewide network that gives me borrowing privileges at any library in Colorado. But, for me, none of this is a substitute for being face-to-face with real books.

I took a folklore class my junior year at Penn, which turned out to really be a linguistics course focused on Native American languages. I was in way over my head, but at the urging of the professor, I stuck it out. Our semester project required each student to research a particular American Indian language that was assigned to us. I remember following call numbers into the stacks and feeling completely intimidated by the books they led me to. But as I puzzled through the technical aspects of linguistics that I barely understood, my attention was drawn to the books on the shelves nearby—studies on the culture and religion and lifestyles of the people whose language I was supposed to be studying. Those were the books that I ended up reading in depth, and although I may have only learned a little about the language assigned, I ended up learning a lot in so many other ways.

But maybe that was exactly what the professor had in mind all along.

Linda Willing C’76 is a former urban firefighter, National Park Service backcountry ranger, and the author of On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories.

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