Saturday, June 25, 2016
Part of Our Lives: A People's History of the American Public Library
Rating: 3.5 Stars
I received this book (an embarrassing amount of months ago) as an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I know what you're thinking - how on earth could a book about LIBRARIES, one of Sarah's most FAVORITE PLACES IN THE WORLD, take her almost 8 months to read??!! I've asked myself that same question many times over, both as I was reading and after I finished the book. There is no good reason why this book took me so long, and I really can't explain it. Perhaps it is because the beginning was kind of dry? I don't know; once I got to the 1900s, I breezed through the book and could not put it down. I can't say for sure what it was that took me so long, but there's something, and for that reason - whatever it may be - I can only give 3.5 stars. It's not a terrible book, it's a very good book and if you love libraries you MUST read it. it just took me a while, and I LOVE libraries. I will forever be an advocate for libraries, yelling down those who claim that now that we can get eBooks, we don't need the real thing. If you truly believe that, or that books don't need to be physical, I honestly do not know if we can be friends. I prefer the real thing, but have my Kindle which is just more practical when out and about. But libraries are such a wonderful resource for the communities they serve and provide a plethora of services that are vital. If we do not provide adequate funding for our libraries, I truly believe society will collapse. I don't even care if you think I am crazy for that statement. it's true. Libraries are mandatory for an educated, well-functioning society. Okay, so I guess maybe the US is not exactly 'educated' or 'well-functioning' right now, but I have faith we can get back there again.
Rant over. On to the book.
The author clearly knows what he is talking about. The research is all here, he uses multiple libraries as examples when discussing the evolution of what we have come to know as a public library, but there really are some sections that are not written in a very engaging way. As I mentioned earlier, I can't quite put my finger on what made some parts this way. This is, after all, a history of a vital cultural institution that has shaped our country in many ways. Still, I appreciate the amount of work that went into writing this text. As I read it on my Kindle, I made a note that 81% of the book was the actual text and the last 19% was devoted to notes and bibliography. That's not a small amount, that's quite a bit of research and numerous resources.
I really loved all the facts about early libraries and the system of checking out books. There's something so quaint about the idea that you gave a librarian your slip with the name(s) of the book(s) you wanted, and they would retrieve them for you. Then, your name would be copied down in a giant ledger with the titles you'd selected. What simple days. And time-consuming! I can't imagine anyone today in our impatient world suffering through any of that for a book and it is probably for the best that we can now get our books ourselves and use self-checkout together - though I adore my librarians at my favorite branch and will always opt for the check out counter over the automated service. In early days also, it amuses me that patrons could only check out 2 to 5 books at a time. When I was pregnant with my daughter over the summer, I would walk out with the max limit of 40 books at a time and it never felt like enough!
I also found the crusade against fiction earlier in the life of the public library to be highly amusing. I never really knew that fiction was considered to be such garbage. Librarians went to great lengths to make sure people did not read ONLY fiction and in some libraries if you were checking out a fiction book, you also had to check out a nonfiction one as well. I myself am partial to nonfiction, so this would not have bothered me much, but I certainly know quite a few people who would have had quite a difficult time getting books had they lived in that period. I also had no idea that Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, and the Hardy Boys were considered unsuitable for children and librarians recommended children NOT read them. I can't imagine a childhood without Nancy Drew! I read those books over and over in elementary school and loved them. I was never as into the Hardy Boys, though I read a few, but Nancy was my girl and I fondly recall wanting to be friends with her and solve mysteries.
There are a lot of other interesting and sometimes little-known facts about the growth and change of libraries over the decades. For example, during WWII when there was a major lack of gas and tires, Baltimore kept its bookmobiles going around the city by purchasing a horse-drawn wagon to be able to bring books to people. This little fact made me love libraries even more.
I was also highly amused by a rule imposed by Chicago's public libraries in the '60s: "In 1969 the Chicago Public Library forbade patrons from exposing their toes while reading. 'Can't have toes all over the place,' one official commented. 'Feet disturb some people,' said another." I really cracked up over that one because while yes, I think feet are weird and kind of gross (I mean really, they sweat inside socks and shoes all day, yuck), silly rules like this are obviously targets for rule-breakers. My flip-flops and I certainly would not have been welcome in those libraries in the 1960s!
Unfortunately, it also seems that through the years libraries have also attracted what I can only describe as total a-holes who ruin the experience for everyone else. The author tells of teenagers in the 1950s harassing patrons, riding their bikes through the reading rooms and throwing bricks and PIPE BOMBS through the front doors. Who are these idiots and where are their parents?! Guess the 50s weren't as wonderful as everyone likes to remember. Similar things happened in the late 60s in New York, and some branches even had to close because of the gangs of a-holes terrorizing the libraries. The most disturbing story to me though came from librarians in Minneapolis (though no doubt this occurred in libraries across the country and is not just local to my home city). In the early 2000s with the rise of the Internet, librarians reported male computer users looking at porn in the library and several were masturbating. IN PUBLIC. Seriously? I don't even. Who are these idiots trying to ruin it for everyone else?!
My main issue with the book and another reason I could not rate it above a 3-3.5, relates to the following. I really hope it was not the author's intention to compare gay people and pedophiles but that is how it came across to me and as an ardent supporter of the LGBTQ community, I can not abide this. However, if my interpretation is incorrect, I'd be all the more happy for it. At 73% the author discusses the San Francisco Public Library "affirming its right" to display a rainbow flag over one of its branches, but then goes on to say that the community showed its limit of tolerance when the citizens protested when the library was going to allow NAMBLA to rent a library meeting room. Now, if you do not know what NAMBLA is, don't Google it at work, because that could land you in some hot water for being A PEDOPHILE and disgusting human being. Now, due to my long-running obsession with a certain yummy former NYPD SVU detective (Oh Elliott Stabler, I love you still, even though you have not been on the show in years - and not ironically, it has been the same amount of years since I have watched the show), I know that NAMBLA stands for the North American Man/Boy Love Association. Gross, right? Sorry, but no, there is no way you will ever convince anyone that this is 'normal' or justify your crimes of raping children. There's no comparison, it is not even close. If the intent is what I originally thought, I am quite bothered. If I misinterpreted, I apologize. There is so much more I want to say about this topic, but then this post will turn into a political rant and not a book review and I am trying very hard to keep this blog and my Twitter as politics-free as possible. it creeps in sometimes, I just can't help it.
Ever since these fancy schmancy new devices called eReaders came into being - and even before - people, especially those who have more authority than they should, have questioned the relevance of libraries in our communities anymore. To those people who would suggest that we no longer need them, I challenge them to step foot in a library, small town or large city alike, and see the wide variety of services offered to the community. The library is not just about checking out books (though that is MY favorite part). There are so many small groups offered by libraries throughout the year, from reading times for little ones, teen lock-ins, adults doing geneology research. It is a place where a homeless person might come to use the computers to look for a job or other assistance they desperately need - or often yes, to sit in the warmth on a wintry day. The Internet can never replace our librarians, nor should we even try. And as for the "Many authorities (who) still have questions about the value of public libraries," (75%), be quiet. Yes we need them and we always will.