Long before the Declaration of Independence was even a glimmer in the eyes of our Founding Fathers, the successful, young Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin developed a plan for first public library in America.
Aside from the fact that Franklin himself was a natural scholar with a thirst for knowledge, I like to think that he knew that a well-educated citizenry was essential to a well-functioning democracy. Inside the doors of Franklin’s imagined library, political beliefs and socioeconomic backgrounds would fade away into oblivion. Inside a library, everyone is just a reader.
Two hundred and eighty six years later, the importance of Franklin’s libraries has hardly changed. The truth is that our world, and the world of our children, is rapidly becoming a far more diverse place. No matter what some politicians might tell us, we cannot build a wall to keep out that future and neither should we. Those who seek to understand each other will fare best in this future, and public libraries protect our freedom to question and be questioned. Libraries are about the opportunity to read, to hear, to speak, and the freedom of ideas. Because no one can be shut out from its walls, a good public library is a monument to the character of a community and how it values the voices of all of its citizens.
The words inside a library, moreover, which are at core just different conglomerations of 26 letters and punctuation marks, are how we navigate the world. We need to be able to follow and comprehend them; people who cannot understand each other cannot communicate and cannot exchange ideas. When you read, when you make sense of a mere 26 letters and punctuation marks, you and you alone can create a new world and look out at it through other eyes. You temporarily become someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re changed ever so slightly. The increased digitization of our society has made possible the impossible, but the fact will remain that one can only truly enter a new world with a real, physical book. Paper and ink are unburdened by the constant stream of notifications and online distractions that tie us to our physical world. Libraries are crucial to the survival of “real” books in the digital era.
When you read, you make a critically important discovery: The world doesn’t have to be like this. It can be different. Once you’ve been shown another world, even one in which fairy fruits give you magical powers, it’s difficult to remain content with the one into which you were born. Discontented people are good. They can modify their world and leave it better by degrees. It’s easy to feel powerless and insignificant in a world of 7 billion people, but the truth is that individuals have remade the future over and over by imagining things. At some point, someone imagined everything that exists and created it, and if we all didn’t have access to libraries, an unknowable number of brilliant minds wouldn’t have the resources to imagine a better future into existence.
When an unpleasant situation in our lives can’t immediately be changed, books can open a door, show us the sunlight outside, and give us a world that we’d like to be in. The world right now is troubling for many of us, and it’s all too easy to become dejected and despondent. Opening a book can be a source of escapism, and during your escape, you can gain skills and knowledge that you can take back to address your real-life predicament. Literary escapism can give you tools that you can use to escape for real.
I got my first library card when I could barely write the six letters of my name, and it became a defining part of my childhood. My father often joked that he needed pliers to pry my nose out of a book. We all owe it to our future children to understand the value of reading and public libraries to create curious and worthwhile citizens.