Years ago, soon after I’d first moved from Texas to Washington, D.C., I was riding in a car with a good friend and her two-year-old son on the outskirts of the capital, in suburban Virginia. My friend was driving and I was navigating, which of course explains why we were, er, a bit lost. At one point, bewildered, I asked her, “is this Lee Highway?” Before she could answer, a tiny voice behind us asked, “Lee Highway? As in Robert E. Lee?”
I was floored, and turned to my friend, who explained, “we go to the library a lot.” That little tyke, back then a massive consumer of anything related to the civil war and the solar system, is now a brilliant, articulate college student, who rest assured, is not only a future leader, but already a successful leader at the age of nineteen. Sure, he’s smart, driven, and has great parents who want only the best for him, but he also had this amazing local resource that opened up new worlds and fed his enormous curiosity and enthusiasm to learn.
While it’s easy to underestimate the role of libraries in American life, this week forced me to dig deep and examine a pillar of our daily life. My own daily life, that is. I now live in suburban Virginia myself and check my library card online at least several times a week to put books and movies on hold for myself and my family, check my overdue status (not that bad, really), and see what’s new. At this particular moment, our family has 36 items out on loan. And yet, our library is so much more to us than a place to check out free stuff. I’ve even had to start limiting our visits there as time stands still once we walk inside.
Sure, they offer a lot more than books. We get the latest movies (we finally canceled our Netflix subscription after we found our library offers most of the same movies, albeit with huge waiting lists), free Internet, and even the educational computer games my kids love. (My four-year-old is particularly hooked on one where she has to map the route to hidden treasures. It’s helped her math and geography skills more than her expensive preschool has been able to accomplish toward the same goals.)
This past month, my seven-year-old walked in and asked the librarian for books about “Middle English.” I was skeptical. I’d remembered studying Old English back in college, but Middle English? Would our community librarians even know the term? As it turned out, we walked out with several stacks of books that took three of us to carry. A couple of them were marked up with post-it notes, highlighting notable chapters on history, linguistics, and famous literature. Oh, and needless to say, we didn’t spend one red cent. On our way out, I was reminded of an earlier evening (and some thirty bucks) wasted at Chuck E. Cheese to keep the same kiddos sufficiently entertained.
A couple nights ago, I attended a community service meeting at my daughter’s school. I’d arrived early as did one other mom. We made small talk, admiring our fine school library, when she said, “you know, when my daughter came home on the first day of school raving about this library, I knew we were off to a good start.”
True enough. We get so much more from our libraries than just books, don’t we?