TOPICS > Arts

In Internet Age, Libraries Still Draw a Crowd

March 13, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, guest essayist Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune goes to the library.

JULIA KELLER, NewsHour Essayist: “A Wrinkle in Time,” “The Lost Race of Mars,” “Revolt on Alpha C,” “Encyclopedia Brown Finds the Clues,” I knew precisely where to locate those books on the shelves of my local public library, the one in Huntington, West Virginia, where I spent so many blissful hours as a kid.

Even after I’d discovered new books, different authors, I would still go back to the books I had already read and check them once more. I liked the idea that my fingerprints on the pages were crisscrossing each other again and again, like a scribble of dizzy boot tracks on a snow-covered field.

Libraries are special places. These days, though, you can’t say that above a whisper, and not just because you’re in a library and somebody will shush you. If you say that out loud, you’ll instantly be branded an old- fashioned fuddy-duddy, because nowadays we are repeatedly reminded we have computers, we have the Internet.

Who needs to go to a library when the world is at your fingertips, just a couple of keystrokes away?

But listen to the results of a study recently released by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Joined by the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign and by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, these researchers made an astonishing discovery, astonishing, that is, to anyone who still thinks of libraries as grandma’s attic, just dusty places filled with cobwebs and codgers.

The survey found that more than half of Americans had visited a library in the past year. And it was young people, people aged 18 to 30, who were pushing to get through the door first. That was also the group most determined to make a return trip: 40 percent of young adults, as opposed to only 20 percent of older folks, said they’d be coming back soon to the library.

Now, it is true that lots of people say they come to libraries for the computers, the CDs, the DVDs, the movies, not the books, but it doesn’t really matter what gets you there, as long as something does.

Best-selling novelist Michael Connelly tells a story about his youth in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. There was a library near the park where he and his buddies played.

When they got too hot and sweaty, they would seek out the air conditioning in that library. But a librarian told him that, if he wanted to stay, he’d have to read a book, and she handed him one, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and a reader was born.

So it’s not what you come for that really counts; it’s what you leave with.

The way we get our knowledge may change, but human nature doesn’t. And there is something profoundly consoling about a public library, about a shared space brimming with stories.

No matter how zippy our computers, no matter how much data is available to us wherever we happen to be, there will always be a reason to go to the library.

The great American author Ray Bradbury recalls that, without the books in the public library near his home in Waukegan, Illinois, his childhood would have been very different. Oh, he would have gotten through it, he says, but he would have been a whole lot lonelier.

I’m Julia Keller.