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In praise of libraries

Since all 15 of the branches in the Jackson County Library Services closed on April 6, there has been a lot of hand wringing, finger pointing, head scratching and tongue wagging.

And there have been columns and commentaries bemoaning the loss and speculating what it says of us that we now have no libraries.

The cause has been attributed to poor planning, lack of direction and a shortfall of funds. All of these conditions bespeak various manifestations of poverty. But in the aftermath, it is the community that is left the most impoverished.

For the record, April 6 was Good Friday and today — one week later — is Friday the 13th. How have we fared for a week without a library and how many more weeks are we going to be perhaps the only county in the United States whose citizens old and young have no access to a library?

Just out of curiosity, how much does it cost our country to spend one day in Iraq and how much of that money comes from the people of Jackson County? And what does that figure look like compared to the cost of the annual budget for our libraries?

And speaking of curiosity, I'd say that being curious is a quality that libraries encourage in its patrons. It certainly did for me. I grew up believing that a library card was a passport to hundreds of worlds — real and imagined.

When we lived in the suburbs, the library used to come to us in the form of the bookmobile. I don't know if those wonderful vans full of worlds still make the rounds. But they did when I was a young reader. We'd have to stand in line outside and wait our turn. Then, the kindly travelling librarian would signal that we could make our way up the steps and into the stacks of books on the walls. Pure magic!

Libraries were a big part of my life at school. We had reading contests in elementary school — how many books could you read in a given amount of time, say a week or a month, or a summer vacation? In high school we hit the library for research. There were essays, reports and term papers to write and they needed to be documented. Footnotes. Bibliographies. Quotes and citations.

The many hours I spent sliding out the long, narrow wooden drawers that housed the card catalogues meant that I became very familiar with the arcane taxonomy of the Dewey Decimal System.

When I left school and did research on my own for a book I was writing, I spent a lot of time in some fabulous libraries. I was especially fond of the old library in downtown San Francisco, with floor after floor teaming with shelves full of ideas. Then there were the libraries in Marin. One was in the civic center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The other was in downtown San Rafael.

But the most amazing library I have ever had access to was in what used to be called the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. I was allowed to wander among the shelves of ancient scientific volumes, first editions penned by such luminaries as Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe. And I was able to pick them up and leaf through their yellowed pages. Talk about a passport to another world!

That library, and others like it, helped keep the image alive that you were entering a temple. A repository of the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of humankind. A place where reverence was expected. That was reinforced by our not being allowed to speak above a whisper.

In more recent trips to the library, I have had less of that early feeling of majesty. It began ebbing away when patrons started being allowed to talk inside, get coffee next door and search for books — or "data" — on a computer screen rather than in a wooden drawer.

But however you access them, a library's treasures are still available for those who would seek them. And a library card is still a ticket to journeys that informed minds have always felt drawn to taking.

A library also is a beacon. A light to fight the darkness of ignorance. And a testament to a community's commitment to the cultural life of its citizens. I'll bet you that there are books inside those locked Jackson County Library Services doors that could tell us how to fix this mess.

If we could just get in there.