By: Patrick Gill
Dear Michael Rosenblum,
You recently wrote an article for the Huffinton Post Media section asking “What’s a Library?” Though you proceeded to write about the death of libraries, I have prepared a few short answers to your initial question.
A library is where the website I am writing this open letter for, In Our Words, was run out of for give or take a month and a half. It was during a sweltering summer right after we began publishing. My computer was broken, my co-founder was in living France, and we were seemingly up a creek when I found Sulzer Regional Library, a short walk from my apartment in Chicago’s Lincoln Square. Able to navigate spotty personal computer issues, continental distance, time zones, and your standard communication errors between editors, the site prevailed and has been publishing for nearly 2 years.
Even after my computer issues were sorted out, staff for In Our Words would regularly work together at the library; Sulzer was accessible by much of the staff (Jessica and I live nearby, and the Western Brown Line and Bus are close for others). It provided an open space with internet access, air conditioning, friendly folks, research materials, and a much needed break from the often monotonous working from home. It was also considerably cheaper than going to coffee shops constantly.
A library is where I also, in this time, wrote a 10 lesson anti-bullying curriculum, with a focus on LGBTQ youth and gender based violence, for a local grammar school. This was fitting because of my youth spent at the library back in California.
A library is where I went every day after Middle School. In off seasons from sports, I would trek from my campus through my hometown of Scotts Valley to their library branch. There I would work and socialize with friends until my mother, who worked as a social worker in a neighboring school district, could pick me up.
Going to a library taught me autonomy, to take charge of my own time and get work done. I was accountable to get there, get to work; I was responsible for further learning. The library is also where I met my friends; we might have been a boisterous group who made librarians steam and caused a racket, but those misfits and punks gave me an early sense of security at an age where you feel like everyone can be an enemy (Yes I have been kicked out of libraries, I still love them; and yes some of the punks hung out near a library, it was a small town). From them I learned loyalty, love, support, and courage. We were not always the best of influences on each other, but we learned from mistakes and cared for each other deeply.
It was also at this branch of the library that I made my first website. Slapdash and an ugly shade of orange, it was one of those template bound “personal websites” that predated any social network. Thinking of it, how I wouldn’t have been able to make it without the library, how the site I work for now is so beautiful and meaningful to me, makes me laugh; really it makes me proud of the years I spent there after school.
The internet, even though I as an editor of an online publication hopes for different, isn’t as accessible as you like to think, Mr. Rosenblum. In fact that public space you say is dead because of it is truly an access point to the web for many. It was for me as a youth, and in my time working out of Sulzer I saw it was true for persons of all ages. So aside from providing patrons with films, music, arts, literature; books and periodicals on film, music, art, and literature; papers and magazines, both local and national; meeting halls with lectures and classes, safe spaces to rest or write during the day, even (often) a place to go to the bathroom, dispose of a flag and or batteries, while dropping off canned goods or jackets for a drive; the library is also a place where one can access the internet.
Yes, a library is “a place for gathering people, giving people the opportunity to encounter each other”; no, this does not mean it is “killed by the web”, it means the web—in its seemingly infinite expanses—still can’t bring people together in all meaningful ways. There is still an intimacy and power in gathering. Thus there is a need for public spaces like our libraries.
I know that you may continue to believe what you wrote, an under researched pot shot at an institution you thought failed—maybe you’re floor is too high up in your building, you might not venture down enough. I was more inspired by Ingrid Coleslaw to write this letter. I encourage others to do so as well. The library is not a space for rich white men to decry as useless, it serves communities that those men can not even fathom. Write your memories, current or deep in the past, write what you loved and love about your local library. We understand the importance of this space, it would be nice to have some positive articles instead. In Our Words would be proud to publish them as you send them in.