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In Praise of Libraries

"I'm just not sure that I believe in Heaven, at least not like I believe in the public library."1

illustration man at counter with books

The public circulating library is one of the greatest "inventions" of all time.

Following the invention of the printing press, advances in technology and other factors (such as the elimination of taxes on paper and printed material) resulted in cheap magazines and newspapers. Although the price of books declined, they remained relatively expensive and beyond the means of ordinary people.

Used books cost less than new and for a long time used-book stores have provided a valuable service. However, they usually don't have the newest releases and only the very largest have a wide selection. Today, it's possible to find used copies of many books on the Internet. New releases become available in a few weeks. For as little as a penny plus shipping and handling ($4.00) you can buy the book and have it delivered to your home. But used-book selling on the Internet is a recent development.

Limited-access libraries have been around since at least the time of the Romans. At the end of the 18th century subscriptions libraries appeared. For a fee a patron had access to the library's holdings which were limited to the needs or desires of the patrons -- for example, a gentleman's library, a tradesman's library and working-man's library.

Publishers and book sellers established commercial circulating libraries from which they sold books and lent books for a fee. Intended for the general public, their holdings were broader, and usually included the increasingly popular novel. Although the fees were low they prevented many people from borrowing books.

illustration of girl reading book

Free to borrow. The public, circulating (or lending) library enables almost everyone to borrow books at no cost. Several factors contributed to the development of the free (supported by public funds) circulating library in the 19th century, including the dispersion of new ideas about equality; the demand for free education and educational materials; an increasingly literate lower class; and an expanding middle class.

There are several characteristics of the public circulating library. They are open to the public. Anyone may enter and browse, do research or read periodicals. You need to become a member to borrow materials. Membership is usually restricted to citizens of a particular locale (county, city) above a certain age.

illustration of pun

The libraries are publicly funded. It costs nothing to become a member, although there are usually fines for not returning materials within the lending period.2

The libraries contain materials on a wide range of subjects, unlike specialized libraries whose holding are limited to works relating to just law, medicine, religion or film, for example. In addition to books their holdings may include magazines, newspapers, maps, audio and video recorded material, manuscripts and much more. They may also provide special programs for children (such as story-telling) and adults (resume writing and job-searching). Some have outreach programs such as bookmobiles. They put on exhibitions and lectures. Most now provide access to computers and the Internet. Interlibrary loans make any particular library a node in a large network which enables patrons to access materials not held in the local library.

Some of the materials may be removed for some period of time; for example, you can check out a book, film or sound recording and take it home. Other materials such as reference works and microfilm do not circulate.

As with all libraries their holdings are classified and arranged so that accessing them is relatively simple and they are staffed by librarians who provide a number of services.

Public libraries have successfully embraced new technologies: microfilm and microfiche, photocopying, cassette tapes, CDs, DVDs and computers. Today, even small-town libraries provide computers and Internet access so that you can do scholarly or personal research beyond the confines of the building.

Library catalogs have been put on line: you do not have to travel to the library to determine what materials it holds. Further, you can place holds on checked-out materials and be notified by email when they become available. The holdings of individual libraries which are part of a system have been combined and put on line so that you can determine which library has the material you want.

Many have digitized some or all of their holdings so that you can access works that you couldn't in the past because of their rarity or physical condition.

Many public libraries now offer on-line access to ebooks and audiobooks. Without leaving your home you can search a library's catalog, find the book your want, check it out and download it to your computer or portable device.3 Some libraries even loan ebook readers.

3 Goops reading books

Libraries, like other publicly-funded services such as fire and police protection, sewage and mass transit, benefit everyone and hurt no one. And they help the poor, especially poor children, without setting aside special funding.

They are relatively inexpensive to operate and immensely useful. However, libraries are one of the first things for which funding is cut during hard times: reducing staffing "a little"; reducing hours "a little"; reducing acquisition budgets "a little." And these reductions are often not restored in good times. Support your local library.

They serve citizens and immigrants, young and old, rich and poor, the educated and the uneducated. You can find ancient texts and the latest bestsellers, multi-volume reference works and small volumes of poetry, art books and ebooks, large-print books and audio books, children's books and volumes of philosophy, newspapers and computers. And much much more.

The public circulating library is a truly amazing place.

It's is a quiet place, free of commercial advertising and there are few such public places.4.

It's is a place to obtain information and pleasure and where you can get help from a librarian at no cost.

It's is a place with a few simple rules: behave, be quiet and return your books on time.5

Libraries make a qualitative difference in a community and they can and do influence individual lives for the better.

Where Have All the Libraries Gone?

(with apologies to Bob Dylan and Robert Lewis Stevenson)

Oh, I do like to go into the stacks.
   And surely you do too.
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
   Ever a child can do!

I'm going to take two new books today
   And one I read before.
The shelves are so full. Can I read them all?
   I wish I could take more.

I'll read them tonight. It won't take long.
   Three days til it's open again.
I need to look up some stuff for school.
   Miss Jones can I borrow a pen?

How I did like to wander the stacks.
   Good times I do recall.
So many books and so little time.
   I couldn't read them all.

Reductions and cutbacks and then it was closed.
  Now what do children do?
I'm no longer young but I still need to read.
  And surely you do too.

The branches first and then the main.
   "No funds, no need" they said.
Where do we get our books today
   Now the library's dead?


When playing Stacks you start at one side of the board and stack words on top of each other until your stack reaches the other side.

game board

Above is an example of the beginning of a game stacking up. You can also stack down, left and right.

The center square of the start row or column is marked with an "S". The center square of the end row or column is marked with an "E".

When a valid word is checked, the score for the word is the sum of (1) the letter-points of the primary word and all new cross-words (if any) and (2) any bonus points. When you use all seven tiles in your tray to form a word (sometimes called a bingo), the total points for the play are doubled.

You receive 50 bonus points for crossing the end square, but you don't have to. The player with the most points at the end of the game is the winner, not the first player to cross the end square. So you can cross it and still lose.

See also

Quick Intro to Stacks

Gutenberg's Sub and Electronic Books


1Karen Cushman, The Ballad of Lucy Whipple (NY: HarperTrophy, 1996), 86. For more see Lucy Whipple.

2Public libraries are usually funded more or less by local, county or state governments (but not in the state of Vermont). Other sources of support are endowments, grants, volunteer staffing, book sales and other fund-raising events. But there are no subscription or membership fees.

3For more about on-line catalogs and free-ebook depositories see Gutenberg's Sub

4For more see our view of Commercial Advertising.

5The room where Colonel Mustard used a candlestick to commit a murder was a private not public library.