July 13th, 2016

For the Love of a Library

Ella Joy Olsen

Libraries are magical places. At least they always have been for me. As a child I wanted lots of stuff – an unending supply of Bubblicious, a puppy, checkerboard Vans, eyes that didn’t need glasses – and I managed to collect only a few, except when we went to the library. I was a lover of books, and everything in the library I could have. For free. If it caught my eye, into the library bag it would go. The smooth pages and colorful bindings were a rainbow of promise.

Throughout much of my life, my view of the library was only this: It was a peaceful place, beloved and wonderfully generous. But it became so much more when I crossed over from patron, to part of a library’s inner workings. In 2008, I became a member of the Board of Directors for the Salt Lake City Public Library, a 5-Star–rated system consisting of a 250,000 square-foot downtown library and seven busy branches scattered about the city, and I began to understand the bigger picture: the importance of libraries to civilization, to democracy, to the future. It’s just a library, you might be thinking. It’s just a roomful of books on shelves. But no. There’s so much more, here’s why:

Free access to a library is the first step toward literacy. So why is literacy so important? And why is access so important? Because the world is full of information, and the ability to read that information is critical for equality (the most basic of all democratic ideals). Unequal access to information, meaning only a select few control the words, creates inequality. Think the middle ages (or parts of the Middle-East).

But reading isn’t simply about enjoying a good escapist novel (though sometimes that’s just what the doctor orders). It’s about the practicality of navigating things like health insurance forms, employment applications, contracts. It’s about sensing a scam…or finding an opportunity.

And yet, reading and literacy are not only critical for the practical applications mentioned above. A story (fictional or not) is also the nexus of imagination. As a reader, you imagine a setting and you speculate at what comes next. Imagination is the root of innovation and innovation is at the core of technology and progress.

In  British fiction author, Neil Gaiman’s fantastic lecture delivered to the Reading Agency in London (see link below), he talked about attending a Science Fiction conference in China in 2007. Science fiction had been disapproved of by the government for decades and Mr. Gaiman wondered why they had recently embraced the genre. He was told by a top official that the Chinese were brilliant at making things as long as others brought them the plans. But they didn’t innovate or invent. So the Chinese government sent a delegation to top technological firms: Apple, Microsoft and Google and asked the inventors what inspired them. They wanted to get to the root of innovation. The correlation? All read science fiction when they were young.

But there’s more. Reading inspires empathy. In a story you feel things or visit places you otherwise wouldn’t. And you learn from the past – what worked, what didn’t, what seemed fair. Many would argue these things can be obtained from watching (television, YouTube, a film), but here’s where I would argue that reading wins. When viewing content you are force-fed another person’s vision. That vision may be award-winning, but it’s not of your own making. In taking the symbols of the English language – twenty-six letters with a smattering of punctuation – and creating a world in your own mind…that is the part that changes a person. Plus, reading forces a slower pace, contemplation between the action sequences, a moment to take a character’s experience and incorporate it into one’s own context.

And what about the physical space of a library? Sure, you can Google all sorts of information that, in the past, was exclusively held in the stacks. And that’s great for equal access. It’s awesome, in fact. But we humans are social creatures. According to the latest State of America’s Libraries report from the American Library Association, libraries are becoming Third Spaces – a social area apart from home or work. Libraries are, “No longer just places for books, libraries of all types are viewed as anchors, centers for academic life and research, and cherished spaces.”

The library building, itself, is a community builder, a neutral place that doesn’t push a product, where people can innovate together. It’s also a safe place – warm when it’s cold outside, cool when you might collapse from heat. There are people who need a quiet space to study or who don’t have access to a computer, and guess where they can find both? A library. It’s a spot where all people are welcome, regardless of age, socio-economic status, or race. It’s the great equalizer. It is the server to the underserved.

As a writer and a reader, I value the written word. I’m enamored with books and the stories they contain. But as human being, I love libraries.

How often do you visit your local library and what are your favorite library sponsored events? Do you have a treasured childhood memory of time spent in a library?

** (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming). This is an edited version of Neil Gaiman’s lecture for the Reading Agency, delivered at the Barbican in London.

About Ella

biophoto1.3Ella Joy Olsen was born, raised, and currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah – a charming town tucked against the massive Rocky Mountains. Most at home in the world of the written word, Ella spent nearly a decade on the Board of Directors for the Salt Lake City Public Library System (and four decades browsing the stacks). She is the mom of three kids ranging from pre-teen to edge-of-the-nest teen, the mama of two dogs, and the wife of one patient husband.

root, petal, thorn COMPThough she’s crazy about words, Ella is also practical, so she graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in Finance. After years spent typing boring stuff, Ella eagerly gave up her corner cubicle and started writing fiction. She has also lived in Seattle, Washington & Savannah, Georgia.

She is a member of Tall Poppy Writers and Women’s Fiction Writers Association. You can find her at www.ellajoyolsen.com, Twitter @ellajoyolsen, or Facebook at www.facebook.com/ella.joy.olsen.author/

ROOT, PETAL, THORN (September 2016/Kensington) is her debut novel. And coming in September 2017 – WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS.

13 comments to For the Love of a Library

  • I recently heard a library being described to young people as “a print-out of Wikipedia where you have to be quiet”. The library was my childhood refuge from bullies, where I learned books could be a best friend. These days it’s a sorry state of affairs when governments consider libraries costly liabilities instead of invaluable social resources, but I suspect such politicians who say that seldom consider anything other than a quick Google search as valid measure of elucidation.

    • ellajoyolsen

      Thanks for your reply! The comment about “a print-out of Wikipedia where you have to be quiet” makes me so sad. The libraries in my town are well-funded, active, joyful and innovative! If a government official thinks libraries are on the decline, they should visit during children’s story-hour or senior movie night! Or basically any hour of any day to see their community gathered to learn! A library is about reading – and so much more!

  • My parents always told people we had to move because I’d finished the local library. Where i live now, in rural Colorado, our library system is small, so most of my library books are ordered on line.

  • Oh, Ella, you’re preaching to a group of choir members here! My favorite days, as a child, was the one day a week we went to the library. When I buzzed through the section I could read, my mother takes to the head librarian, and they let me take out more than 7 books at a time.

    It was a refuge, and a peaceful haven in my war-torn childhood.

    Sigh. Thanks for the beautiful post. Libraries forever!

  • I love libraries, too. I have many treasured memories of the first library I ever frequented. Mostly because my own grandmother was the librarian. I was often her helper. I got to help her open the new books when they arrived. To help her shelve the books that were returned and just to spend hours with her in that wonderful place of books of every description, all cataloged by the Dewey Decimal system.

  • Orly Konig-Lopez

    I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t go to the library much these days. I used to love the quiet among the books when I was young. But I’m a book buyer.

  • When I was a kid, our town was so small we didn’t have a library – we had a bookmobile. Every Tuesday it would pull into the bank parking lot and we’d be waiting in our station wagon. We jump out and get in line to fill our bags. Always my favorite day. I think I still love Tuesdays best.

  • Holly Robinson

    Our tiny town actually had a wonderful library, and that became my second home when I was in middle and high school because I could bike there–and because the librarian was one of the few people who didn’t think it was odd that I wanted to read George Bernard Shaw’s collected plays during my summer vacation, followed by steamy romances!

  • I love libraries. Always have…until recently. In addition to my childhood years of browsing and having trouble deciding which book to pick next, I started using the library as a place to write free from the distractions of life. My last several trips to my favorite study carrel, where I used to have a quiet place, has become social central. People using the computers to shop and chat with friends (loudly), groups of people taking up tables to play cards (I’m not making this up). Even the librarians don’t keep their voices down. There are some small rooms set aside, but it only takes one person to spread out on the table and fill the space. I am glad to see the community coming together, I just wish libraries could be quiet again or set aside a larger room for those of us who want and crave the peace of the library. For now, I’ll keep using my Bose noise-canceling earbuds.

  • […] a post that deserves more than just a plus+ or a share on your favorite social media site. “For the Love of a Library” by Ella Jay Olsen is one such […]

  • Amen! Hear Hear! Right On! I don’t work in a library, but I love them and always will. I was shocked to hear that a large town’s library 60 miles away was no longer open on Saturdays. How could that be? A day when the majority of adults and children have the time to go, and it’s closed? The internet cannot, and should not, take the place of a library full of books. We, as authors and readers, must ensure that. GREAT POST!

  • I love libraries too. In fact I would love a library in my own house. Libraries have changed though. They’re no longer a place where everyone whispers and there’s just the sound of rustling pages but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my opinion. They’ve changed out of necessity.

    My boys, aged 4 and 6, love the library too. I think they love everything about it and I hope they continue to do so for the rest of their lives.

  • Library: a place where dreams come true, if only by traveling through books!


    ps. ours was a cooling center today with the high temps

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