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My Ever Changing Relationship with the Library

The repository for our knowledge has historically been entrusted to libraries. But in this Internet age is the library still relevant today? I think libraries are still relevant and, in fact, they've frequently embraced new technology at a faster rate than many of their users. I recently discovered an impressive new library technology that makes libraries even more relevant.


I'm far from a book worm, but I've connected and reconnected with this institution at least half a dozen times in my lifetime and every time I'm reintroduced, I'm amazed to see how much the library has changed. Like an old friend, I've recently reconnected the relationship has never been better.


Thomas Jefferson famously said, "I cannot live without books."


As a child I could definitely live without books and was frankly more fascinated by TV, movies and toys. Sometimes, though, I needed more in my life and since my home was located nine miles from "civilization," on a weekend my goal was to get a ride into town to go to the shopping mall. I quickly learned that asking my Dad for ride to the mall didn't work well, but if I asked for a ride to the library I almost always got a "sure."


So we went to the library and I would dutifully look at a few things until my father became engrossed in something and, almost as an afterthought, I said I was going to pop over to the mall and would meet him back here a little later. This ruse worked well for many years, but along the way I actually found that the library could be a fun place.


I loved looking on the microfiche machines at old newspapers and discovered a shelf of books called the Periodical Index. This was one of the most powerful books of its day since it listed virtually all magazine articles and organized them by subject. In many ways this felt like the decoder ring to finding everything interesting. Of course today no one needs a book to search by subject, but back in the day it was a powerful tool.


By the time I reached college, the library played a very different role. No longer was the building a source of amusement, but it had transformed itself into one of pain. This is where energetic students came to coat themselves with a thick lacquer of stress. I really started to hate the feeling I got in the library because I associated it with the challenge of getting good grades. I worked past the pain once I discovered that while asking a girl on a date felt awkward, asking her to "go to the library to study" was a relatively easy first step.


After college I really had no need for libraries. Libraries, I thought, were for the homeless, the internetless or the bookless. I was none of those things.


It was almost about 10 years later and almost by accident that I rediscovered the library as a second office. It had everything I needed to get my work done: a comfortable desk, high ceilings, fast wireless internet access and something that my office didn't have…a way to avoid all interruptions.


I continued to be fascinated by how other people used the library. Of course I wouldn't be caught dead reading a library book. That ultra shiny plastic cover effectively told the world, "I like to read but I can't afford to buy books." Somehow reading library books didn't seem appropriate to my station in life.


That all changed this month as once again the library transformed its role in my life. I purchased an electronic book reader with the idea that it would be lighter and more convenient than the hardback books which seem to get heavier all the time. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to discover that the e-reader also provide a new path back into the library. This was a virtual path. From the comfort of my own home I'm able to borrow (download) electronic books for free. I was fascinated by the software that manages the digital rights and keeps track of where the book is downloaded only allowing one user to have access at a time. Unlike their physical cousins, with e-books there are no missing pages, coffee stains, margin notes and, of course, the book comes stigma-free with no glossy book cover.


The library's electronic collection is still growing but there was a reasonable selection of current and classic. I opted to start on the classic side as I rekindled my relationship with the library. Uncle Tom's Cabin was a book I could barely remember from my childhood, but one that as an adult I thoroughly enjoyed anew. This book is so well crafted and did a great job of capturing the emotions of that day—emotions that would ultimately change history. On the other hand, Swiss Family Robinson, was a disappointment and one of the few times in my life when I've said, "the movie was better."


To quote Henry David Thoreau, "How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book." In my case I feel like I'm dating the library as well.


August 14, 2011

© Greg Harris, 2011

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