Last week, I went with a friend to see the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen. Who would pay $9.50 to see a 65-year-old movie (in black and white) that’s available just about anytime this time of year on TV for free? Well, we happily did, along with a crowd of fellow theater goers. Why? For one thing, Jimmy Stewart looks delicious on the big screen. For another, there’s a sense of community in seeing a well-loved movie tradition among birds of a feather, flocking together.
Speaking of community, when it comes right down to it that’s exactly what George Bailey is–a community asset. It’s why everyone comes to his rescue in the end–because George has helped almost all of his neighbors at one time or another. He is a fixture in the community–something reliable and steadfast and true. Kind of like a library. Never mind that in the movie, in the alternate life without George, Mary becomes the town librarian–a skittish, virginal old maid, afraid of her own shadow. We’ll forgive Frank Capra because he just didn’t know any better at the time.
I’m thinking about community and libraries tonight for other reasons, too. This post at Agnostic, Maybe was spot on. It’s not a new concept that public libraries should adapt to their own, unique communities–many of us have been saying this for quite some time. However, Andy articulated the concept particularly well using The Spaghetti Sauce Moment as an analogy.
Last night, I worked my regular volunteer shift at the Lititz Public Library–my hometown library. As I was going about my work, I was listening to the staff around me talk about the weekend and the wonderful turnout for their holiday festivities, which included a visit from Santa. Statistics were calculated not by a gate count, but rather by the number of candy canes handed out (80) and the amount of cookies served (6 pounds). I detected no shortage of enthusiasm and pride for the way in which the children of the community were served that day.
What a lovely and welcome contrast to the week in ebooks. First there was the revelation that OverDrive possibly (probably) has different catalogs for different libraries/service areas--a condition that was not necessarily conveyed fully to participating library customers. This tidbit was followed by an explanation without apology by OverDrive explaining their practices and the reasons behind them. Lots of good, important information (thanks to Sarah Houghton), but nothing warm and fuzzy here. Business as usual with regard to the vendor-publisher-library trap to which we’ve all fallen victim.
While I still firmly believe that there is room at the table for all ideas–big and small (including the possibility of a National Public Library in some form or another)–I believe even more firmly that a library is as strong as the community that it supports and that supports it. We have a lot of work to do to bring public libraries to the point where they are not in danger of extinction due to a false perception of irrelevancy.
However, that said, imagine a life without libraries. It is only when George Bailey’s existence was erased that we realized how many lives he touched. It would be impossible to measure the number of lives touched, affected, and changed by the simple existence of libraries in communities. Corny? Certainly. True? Probably. I can’t prove that, but I dare you to prove otherwise.
During this brief season of joy and goodwill that sadly seems to comes only once a year, I prefer to turn away from the business of libraries, with all its controversy and turmoil, for a brief respite and focus instead on the rich history of community that surrounds the old-fashioned ideal of the town library. Thanks to Frank Capra, Andy Woodworth, and the good folks at the Lititz Public Library for bringing that into focus for me this evening. That ideal may not last forever, but I suspect that whatever lies ahead for libraries will be born more out of a sense of community than out of a need for ebooks.
I can be as cynical as they come when it comes to the frustrations inherent in forcing unwanted change on an institution that thrives on what’s safe and known and familiar. But it’s hard to be cynical about anything this time of year, especially about a place where you can take your children to see Santa, eat cookies, hear a story, see a Christmas movie, and enjoy the simple act of celebration and community that can often be found at your local public library.