One of the many things that make the United States of America a civilized country is their system of public libraries. I must add quickly that I am aware of the deep fallacy inherent in this statement. Experience shows that reading does not always make us better or more civilized human beings. The worst rogues in this world are necessarily well-informed, and possibly well-read. Therefore, the impact of libraries on their user populations is questionable. Be that as it may, one can quote Borges: “I do not know if education can save us, but I do not know of anything better.”
Trumbull in the state of Connecticut, is a small town. This place has a post office, a few gas stations and banks, and a handful of shops. As you walk along empty pavements, you see nothing but speeding cars, beautiful bungalows with gardens, and a green backdrop that will turn red in a month's time. Only two buses ply on the Main Street – on which our house is – and their drivers work from 9 to 5.
But this small, undistinguished town has two ubiquitous symbols of modern America: a shopping mall, where you can buy everything except a few necessities of life like aircraft and ships, and a quaint library ensconced in a lovely garden. From outside, the library looks like any other ordinary building, but as you walk in, you see that it has a beautifully designed interior with polished pine wood furniture and hushed shades on walls. Behind the reception desk, the big hall splits into two levels. There are designated areas for the teens, the elderly (books in large print), and numerous computers with Internet access, besides a separate children's library in an adjacent hall. There are large racks of CDs, DVDs, and audio books, but the best part of the library is its stacks where one can browse through books for hours. Since leaving my university in Santiniketan, I forgot what an open-stack library looked like, and the esoteric pleasure of being surrounded by thousands of books .... If you can't find the book you want, the library will get it from whichever library in the state has it, and telephone you to inform that your book has arrived.
At any time of the day, you find many people in the library, reading, or working on the computers. You see very elderly people in mechanized wheelchairs, working people, housewives, students, and small kids with parents. Everyone is engrossed in their work, and you feel that a lot of people in this country read, a fact that you would already have noticed on local trains and at sea beaches. (There are full page advertisements for new books, mostly fiction, in newspapers almost every week.) My mind drifts to the stories I have read back home about the average American's ignorance and lack of general knowledge and I wonder why no one writes about the people I see in the library here. That Americans are generally ignorant is as true as Indians being generally poor. According to the Time Magazine (24/08/09), "They (Americans) ranked global warming last in a national survey of 20 top priorities". But isn't wallowing in another people's weaknesses a cheap ego trip, just like some tourists from richer countries photographing beggars and garbage dumps in India?
Soon after coming to the USA, I noticed that the only thing cheaper here than in India is peeing. This is a country of pay-and-use highways and free toilets, which are usually spotlessly clean. I have recently come to know that the second thing that is free here is the public library. Water is an expensive commodity here, (it costs nearly as much as orange juice), but you pay nothing for membership of a bibliothèque. You don't even have to be a tax payer or a citizen. All they need for membership is a proof that you are a resident of the area.
And how many of them do they have? A visit to the website of the public libraries revealed that every city town or village in the US has one or more libraries. From the website, I discovered that there are not one, but two in Trumbull. The state capital, Hartford, a city of 1,24,062 people, has 11 public libraries. One of them is expectedly named after Mark Twain, the most illustrious son of the city.
The recession that began in 2008 has hit the libraries. There has been some closures and threats of much more closures. But ironically, the recession has also increased library usage as many families cannot afford new books, films, or Internet connection at home. A newspaper has described the public libraries as recession sanctuaries. Fortunately, at this difficult time, the USA has a man in charge whose main resource is knowledge and intelligence, as opposed to birth and bank balance of many of his predecessors. A policy of the federal government is "refurbishing the nation's classrooms and labs and libraries so our kids can compete". Grants to libraries is a part of the economic recovery package.
Fifteen years ago, India had neither shopping malls, nor libraries for the masses. Today, we have the former, many of them, and nobody is bothered about the latter. We can only imagine the impact that would be if we copied the public library system of the USA along with, if not instead of, their shopping malls!
[I was thinking about writing on the topic for some time. The immediate trigger was a post by my young friend Tanmoy on his blog about libraries in New Zealand. Thank you, Tanmoy.]