I've written before about libraries and the part they played in my childhood. I figured that role no longer existed because of the huge amount of media access now available from birth through death. Why go to a library when you have the world at your fingertips? I watch my friend's three-year-old grandson manipulating her cell phone and iPad and think that books and libraries will soon be a thing of the past.
Since I grew up in a family without a lot of disposable income, a library was critical to my insatiable reading habit. I can't remember not having a library card, though I don't ever remember attending programs there. I don't know if libraries even had programs for children back then like they do now. My library buddy Grace and I both came from families running their own businesses, so our mothers were busy at our fathers' sides helping customers and didn't have time to take us to library programs if they did exist.
Nonetheless, Grace and I loved books and that meant we loved the library. The librarian only had to show us once where our section of books was located and we took it from there. We read every Cherry Ames, Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins and Oz books we found. In a day when media meant a TV with, at best, three channels, this was where we went to explore a world beyond the confines of our little neighborhood.
There are great differences between the library of my past and the libraries of the present and future. Some of those differences are simply mindboggling. For instance, in my day a library card meant I could go to a room with a stack of books, choose which I wanted to read and have the books stamped by a nice lady at the desk. Then I got to walk out of the building with my arms full of treasure. Now, a library card means you can sit in the comfort of your own home and download e-books that you can keep for about three weeks before they "return" to the library shelf. How cool is that?
Equally important, perhaps, in a time when we are more and more isolating ourselves from our family and friends through use of electronic media, the library remains a place of vibrant community where ideas can be accessed and shared, discussions held and knowledge gained whether you are rich or poor. It is the ultimate democratizing institution available to everyone in this country.
Today's reality is that if you can't afford a computer, you are at a distinct disadvantage in a very competitive world. Go to the library and find free computer access to anyone with a library card. And that card is also, as always, free. In a world where having information at your fingertips is more critical than ever to succeeding, the library is the one place anyone can go to level the playing field.
When I first saw the Loussac Library building completed, I remember having two thoughts. One, it reminded me of my childhood library. The Atlantic City library was also a large, imposing building made of stone. Luckily for us kids, the entrance was a lot easier to find. It sat on a street in the middle of the city, which also made it easier to use since we could simply walk there and back from home. And two, the Loussac looked like the fortress William the Conqueror would have built after the Battle of Hastings to secure his foothold in England. It was, to put it mildly, not a very inviting place. And let's be honest here, anyone who remembers his or her first attempt to find the front door and then actually locate the library in the building knows that it can be a challenge.
But none of that really matters to someone for whom that library stands as their chance to learn, compete, and be part of our country and economy. Whether reading a newspaper they could otherwise not afford or accessing a computerized small business program that will help them launch their own enterprise, libraries today are as vital a part of our community as they were in my youth. Given the critical role of media in today's world, maybe even more.
Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow. Web site, www.elisepatkotak.com.