City libraries hold much value and are gratefully preserved
My grade school library was the first I ever set foot in. I was about five. Just learning how to read, the library opened up a brand new world to discover.
I was mesmerized by the sheer quantity of books in that little library that was perhaps half the size of the Colfax library. That amazement has reignited over the years as my path has taken me through much larger libraries.
My school's library today is a little bit bigger than Colfax's. It serves a student population of 548. There is a computer lab in a much larger building separate from the library. The two combined resemble a mini version of the library I frequent most often these days - the California State University, Sacramento Library. It's huge and virtually free - sort of.
Of course it costs money to operate a library ... to stock it, equip it and staff it - the money has to come from somewhere. But shouldn't access be free? It feels to me like free library access is decidedly American. It's the counterpart to the First Amendment. What's the use of a free press without free access to the products of the press? Although library costs are paid by tax dollars, getting those dollars to the library requires community support - especially in a small community like Colfax.
However, the funds required to run to these bastions of a free and unabridged press are always the first on the fiscal chopping block. The personnel needed to keep the doors open require ongoing funding. The bottom line is simple: Libraries need librarians.
Like teachers, librarians are undervalued in our society. They are charged with the responsibility of cataloging and indexing the information of our world. It is a huge responsibility. We seem to expect these professionals to do this task almost as a labor of love, out of the charity of their hearts or due to some sense of civic duty. Truth be told; like teachers, many of them do. And the sad truth is that we, as a society, take them for granted.
We pay them part-time money for full-time work. In Colfax, the library is open 24 hours per week, yet three part-time employees account for just 40 hours per week of paid employment. Although community volunteers help, if it weren't for employees with a strong sense of duty, the work could not be done.
The biggest problem with cutting funding to libraries is not manifested in what is actually inside the building itself, but in getting inside it. A library is useless if the doors are closed.
All the online access to information in the world will never substitute for the hard copy. Books have legitimacy and credibility; they have an odor and a feel - each one a little different. There is continuity from reader to reader; each leaving the subtle mark of his or her passing that can never be replicated by electronic text.
It's librarians like Gunda Pramuk in Colfax that keep it all in order, but they do so much more. They know how to find information; the methods and the tricks of the trade are their art. A dying art? Perhaps. The ease and comfort of never having to leave the home may be the death knell for the library and the librarian. Perhaps the library is becoming nothing more than a literary museum of sorts; a curiosity of how we used to store thoughts and ideas before the digital revolution.
Or, perhaps not. The Placer County Board of Supervisors has recently committed a significant sum of money to the preservation - indeed, the expansion of the county library system. What does that mean to little Colfax? Physically, it means a library with about double the space by 2008 - maybe sooner.
But beyond the physical, it represents an ideological shift - a statement by our elected officials - driven by communities big and small - that libraries are important.
Libraries are not the books they contain; they are not the computers, not the periodicals or the encyclopedias, but rather, an environment. They are academia. They are progress. They are the outward, bold and public statement that this is the land of the free. The collective knowledge of mankind is housed within those walls, free for any who seek it. Our librarians are the trusted stewards of all that wisdom. They are there to share it with any who ask. Any takers?