Preserving the Stacks of Treasures

These days the face of literature and learning are changing so rapidly, it’s hard to know much of the time what we’re even looking at or why we bother to write.

I came across a rather interesting video that says it all both forward and backward:

It’s thrilling and terrifying. A truly brave new world. But my quandary goes beyond the welfare and future of publishing to something more essential: the preservation and accessibility of information and knowledge itself.

In many ways, information seems more accessible than ever. Certainly when my son has to write a report for elementary school, he can google everything he needs to know right from the computer on my desk. He looks at me in astonishment when I tell him that, in my day, that same report would’ve taken hours of research at the library.

I remember losing myself in the stacks – the long dim, slightly dusty corridors where spines lured me like whispered promises. As a child, my mother used to take me and my siblings for afternoons at the local children’s room where I would lie in a quiet corner surrounded by a carefully selected tower of books, musing for hours about worlds of imagination and possibility I’d never dreamed.

In high school I discovered that I could ask the librarian for the yellowed pages of newspapers published nearly a hundred years before. Not microfiche (which used to give me motion sickness if I scanned too quickly), but actual pages carefully preserved in an acid-free box kept somewhere in the library’s bowels.

It was in the hallowed Reading Room at the New York Public Library that my odd passion for dry academic tomes and archaeological reports bloomed. Their humble Pandoran pages opened like a treasure chest, filled with stories nothing else could have revealed. It was exhilarating simply to hear the subtle crack of a volume that only I and probably a half-dozen others had requested in the last half century.
New York Public Library
I could have discovered none of this without the library. Unlike the elite halls of wisdom of ages gone, public libraries in America are an incomparable symbol of freedom and equality. The concept of free public libraries is inherently tied to a free public education, a right that I pray no one can argue against, except perhaps in the hope to making the definition of “free” include “highest quality”.

But in this era where it seems everything is migrating online, libraries are under threat. Here in New Jersey, Governor Christie’s proposed budget includes a 74% decrease in funding for library services. According to a recent Legislative Alert posted on the New Jersey Library Association’s website, this cut will eliminate all statewide library programs and services. It will affect all types of libraries in the state and, once state funding is eliminated, New Jersey will lose $4.5 million in federal funding.

I don’t often take a public political stance, but loss of our libraries is more than a personal affront. It goes to the very heart of the American tenets of freedom and equal opportunity.

As a novelist, I could not do my work without the library. Even today, access to expensive research databases and obscure texts that I often obtain through interlibrary loan are the backbone of my research. The Internet is simply not enough. (And please don’t talk to me about the Devil – I mean Wikipedia.) With all the posting and scanning – legal or otherwise – going on online, there are simply some things that will never make their way into the digital world.

But the issue goes beyond my personal and peculiar penchant for the obscure. Libraries provide essential services to people without internet access (and yes, there are still quite a few!), people who long to learn what they do not know, who need jobs in this crisis economy, who are applying to schools or starting new businesses, who want to introduce their children or themselves to a body of literature that is otherwise out of reach – accessible and free to all.

When so many core values in America have simply slipped away in recent years, this one is simple, affordable, and more than worthy of saving.

Go to to let your legislators know if you agree. The library you save may be your own.



  • Larry Green

    I want you to know how grateful I am for your beautifully written essay on the immediate dangers to public libraries.

    Significant chunks of my memoir involve the importance of public libraries in my learning to read and keep pace with school mates after my long hospital stay. It would’ve taken me years to learn to read had it not been for a childrens’ librarian with a heart of gold., who sat with me for hours each week until I was pretty much up to grade level–this in less than a year! I hung out in libraries on a regular basis throughout my adolescence, until going off to graduate school. Also in my memoir is a lovely memory of my brother, 10 years my senior, taking me to the New York Public Library soon after my beginning high school. At that time my brother worked in the lower stacks, and he gave me a complete tour of the entire process from ordering a book upstairs to following the slip throught the shoot, all the way through the stacks.
    As a results of my library experience, and my gratitude, I have always considered public libraries as another Alma Mater.

  • Frances Hunter

    Wonderful post. It is shocking sometimes to see the ease with which we discard our heritage and freedoms that took so long to build.

    We can look and take advantage of the libraries; historic sites; bridges; highways; liberty; that our ancestors worked and sacrificed to build. And it’s all so easily discarded in favor of the shiny and the new, so easily axed from the budget.

    How will WE be remembered?

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