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Libraries can save lives, says this local librarian

By Meghan O'Flaherty

for the Mail Tribune

As you know by now, all 15 Jackson County libraries will close their doors at the end of business on Friday. This will be my last column for the Mail Tribune, and I'd like to take this opportunity to tell you my personal library story.

When I was a little girl, library books saved my life. I think that might be the literal truth. My father was a violent, abusive alcoholic.

My mother was a religious woman who didn't challenge him. I was their only child, isolated and frightened.

A sympathetic children's librarian introduced me to books that opened up new worlds for me. Through them, I walked through the door of an old wardrobe and found Narnia on the other side I began to believe that there were beautiful secret gardens in the world. I pretended I was Mowgli, being raised by a loving wolf pack in the jungle.

When I was 17 and on my own, libraries saved me again. The reference librarians at the Orange County Public Library introduced me to authors and ideas that never would have been allowed inside the door of my childhood home. They helped me learn to think for myself and taught me how to find the answers to my questions.

They gave me my first job. They urged me to go to college. Then they showed me how college could be possible, even for a single mother like me with only a high school education and a part-time job.

With their help and encouragement, I eventually earned a bachelor's degree and then a master's degree in library science.

Over the past 40 years, I've worked in all kinds of libraries: an elementary school library on an Indian reservation; a bookmobile in the canyons of the Colorado Rockies; a government library where we cataloged and preserved archaeological papers and photographs. But mostly, I've worked in public libraries, introducing toddlers to the world of stories, helping teens with homework, showing adults how to find answers to their questions.

Like all the librarians I've ever known, I live for that moment when I put a book or piece of information in someone's hand and see their eyes light up. This is what librarians do, and you'll never replace it with a search engine.

For me, it's a special joy to introduce new generations to some of my old friends: "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," "The Jungle Book," "The Secret Garden," "Robin Hood." Yes, I know you can watch the movie. But when a child reads a book, the child is the director. No movie has ever captured the nobility of Aslan as well as I pictured him in my mind, all those years ago, when he became my friend and champion.

I have learned a lot in school, but I have learned more in libraries.

In libraries I have never been restricted by someone else's curriculum requirements. In libraries I have been free to follow my curiosity, as far as it would take me, with the help of tremendously knowledgeable research professionals willing to give me one-on-one assistance.

I didn't realize it back then, but I did find that magical wardrobe.

It was disguised as the door to my public library. Libraries change lives. I am living proof. Over the past 40 years I have seen it happen again and again. I am privileged to work in a building where miraculous transformations begin every day, often with a simple question at the reference desk or the shy tug of a child's hand. Small businesses are born here, children learn how to dream here, the poor reach for a better life here.

We are often criticized for not paying enough attention to the bottom line. People want to know exactly how much return they're getting on the investment of tax dollars, and studies have shown that a community sees a $4 to $6 return for every dollar spent on public libraries. But for me and many others it's more personal. I owe my life to librarians. How do you put a price on that? How many others are there like me?

Here's what I know. I am so proud to have been part of the effort that built this beautiful Jackson County Library System. I hope it survives to inspire many future generations.

If you have a personal story about the way libraries have changed your life, please post it at www.jcls.org/infoblog.

Meghan O'Flaherty is headquarters library manager for Jackson County Library Services.