29 July 2018
When I was about nine my parents finally allowed me to go to the library on my own. It was a big deal at the time, as it involved a 5-mile bike ride into town along back country roads. It was worth it. As a resident of the county, I had my own library card, and that meant I could check out up to five books at a time. For a midwest farm kid, it was like the entire world lay open before me. For free.
To be fair, the library wasn’t really free. My parents, like everyone in the county, paid property taxes. A portion of that tax money went to the library. But because it was funded by taxes, a nine year old kid had the same access as a seasoned farmer or an elderly widow. I was a member of the community, so in the library I had standing.
Even back then I was fascinated with all things space. I went through the library’s small collection of astronomy books five at a time. Books by Asimov, Roy A. Gallant, and H. A. Rey. It was a small library, so it didn’t take long to plow through the books they had. In farm country, even a library is a bit limited.
But the library also had a librarian. She welcomed me every time I entered the library, and always said to just ask if I needed any help. So when I ran out of astronomy books, I asked her for help. She introduced me to the wonderful world of interlibrary loans. Amazingly, your library card not only let you check out books from your local library, it also allowed you to ask for books from other libraries. You could look for books in the card catalog (which my librarian taught me to use) and then request books. Fill out a request card, hand it to the librarian, and the books would show up a few days later. For nine year old me, this was a power bordering on magic, and I exercised it often.
At the main desk of the library there were always a few books on display. They usually had interesting covers, and they were always available to check out. One day there was a copy of Starman Jones front and center. It had a bright green cover with a spaceship in the background, and when the librarian saw me eyeing it, she suggested I check it out. I wasn’t really a fiction reader, but none of my interlibrary loan books had come in yet, so I gave it a shot. When I returned it a couple days later gushing about how awesome it was, she smiled and told me there were several more by the same author.
I knew the librarian chose books for display, but at the time I didn’t realize there was a method to her madness. Over the next couple of years other books appeared. The Hobbit, Watership Down, Dune. As I learned to trust the featured books, the offerings broadened. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984. I entered fiction through the eyes of Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke, but their voices were joined by Atwood, Achebe, and Angelou.
Broad reading changes you. At nine the idea I would ever go to college seemed like wild fantasy. As I approached the end of high school, I felt ready for the academic world. I was still fascinated about space, and maybe, just maybe, I could become an astrophysicist.
Which is exactly what I became.
It wasn’t just my local librarian that guided my path to a career in science. There was also the support of my family and my own hard work. But it’s hard to overstate the importance my library. When I entered it I was the captain of my destiny, but the librarian was a faithful navigator, guiding me to distant shores.
Last Summer I returned to my old library. The total solar eclipse was happening soon, and I was to give a talk about what to expect. The librarian of my youth had long since retired, and much had changed. The area near the front desk now had several computers for general use, and the card catalog had been replaced by a couple of tablets for book searches. There were DVDs in the back corner, and there were posters about e-books and how you could use them through the library.
But the front desk still had books on display. Books about astronomy and Sally Ride. And among the adults shuffling in for the talk were perhaps a dozen children. Some had ridden to the library on bikes. They brought books to the front desk, and checked them out with their own library cards. When it was time for the talk they sat in the front. They asked questions. They knew they could because this was their library. And even if they were only nine years old they heard the same message every time they walked through the door.
Welcome to the library. Here you are part of our community. Here you have standing.