The Public Library: the great equalizer

by on February 1, 2010 · 10 comments

in Civil Rights, Education, History

Let’s not mince words, I am willing to admit that I love the shit out of books. Much more than is probably healthy or even altogether sane. I love how they smell, how they look on my bedside table or on used bookstore shelves. I love the quiet contemplation they induce in people, the gentle low murmur of contentment that fills bookstores and libraries thick as a cat’s purr beneath its ribs. I love watching a friend or lover read, their eyes intent, their bodies in the same room as mine but their neurons a world away.

Most of all, I love reading, curled in my bed before sleep, on the couch with a cup of tea on a rainy day, stretched flat and gently roasting on the beach. I love unfurling my mind into a new, uncharted landscape, inhabited by Zorba’s and Mrs. Dalloway’s, and seeing how it fares. I am an entirely impartial defender of books.

ob library from ragThe public library is the setting for many of my most peaceful and settled childhood memories. The sleepy hush of the tall aisles of books, lined up in a row of worlds, provided a weekly refuge from the outside pressures to grow up. I am still a child in the library, wandering from book to book, my search for Borroughs leading me with joy to Bennett, and on and on, each new find a discovery of a place within myself, and a point of relationship with others.

How ridiculously fortunate are we to have a comprehensive public library system! The library is the great equalizer, providing free access to the greatest social wealth: knowledge. Can you imagine where we would be if not for the public library? People that have given us some our most basic and useful inventions may never have even begun their education.

Thinking about this the other day, I felt a rush of civic feeling, much like the red-cheeked high of a shot of whiskey. Later, I sat down to dinner with a friend and proclaimed: “The library is absolutely the awesomest thing the federal government has given us!”

My friend laid down his fork and said in a world-wise manner: “Oh, I agree. That and the post office. Both Ben Franklin, you know.”

He smiled smugly and picked his fork back up, tossing off his civic knowledge like my mothers friends, Midwest homemakers, would brag about cooking knowledge – “Oh yes, that cookie recipe, it’s a Nigella Lawson you know.”

Excited as only a poli sci nerd and bibliophile could be about this information, I decided to look into the public library/B. Franklin connection. I started, shame on me, by googling Benjamin Franklin and public libraries.

Of course, I got 80 gabillion different sites, and none of them was very comprehensive (granted, I did not look at them all – I also have, you know, a job and a life and stuff). Overwhelmed, I closed my laptop. Well duh, I thought, looking at the stack of books to return on the table by the door, I should just take this search to the source – the public library.

I still used the Internet, though, searching the San Diego Public Library online catalogue and found a few different books about Benjamin Franklin. I settled on “The Amazing Mr. Franklin, or The Boy Who Read Everything”, because it was specifically about Franklin’s reading habits, and because it’s a book written for children. In short, it’s to the point and written to hold the interest of those of us who are not necessarily “dates & battles” history people. I put the book on hold, which ships it from its current branch location to my Ocean Beach branch, and a few days later went to pick it up

B Franklin PicThe book begins with little Ben ready to run away from home. His precocious brightness is established off the bat. “I do not remember when I could not read,” he is quoted as saying as an adult, looking back on his youthful hunger for reading material.

This must have been frustrating, growing up in a time before libraries or even (remember?) before the Internet. Any book he read had to bought or begged from someone wealthy enough to have a private library. The poor (of which Ben Franklin was not) had absolutely no access to books at all.

Little Ben is somewhat nauseatingly fleshed out as a goody-goody child prodigy, but his actions are still interesting. As a teenager, he realized that meat was the most expensive thing he ate. By cutting meat out of his diet, he was able to spend the money he saved on books. And the wheels began to turn…

Franklin opened a printing shop, started his own newspaper, and formed a group of likeminded writers that called themselves the Junto. Throughout his life and work, his biggest problem was books – he went through them like Tiger Woods goes through waitresses, and was constantly running out.

So Franklin and the Junto started the “Library Company of Philadelphia”, a subscription library for which members paid 40 shillings up front and 10 shillings a year after that, to pay for the cost of new books. Only subscribers could take out books, but any “civil gentleman” could sit in the library and read. The library introduced fraternity, equality (except for women, minorities, and the like – that was not to come in Franklin’s time), education, and entertainment – an American concept was born.

first libraryThe Library Company is now considered the first public library in the colonies. It was, yes, supported by private money, but it was open and used by the general public. Suddenly, reading was fashionable, as it had NEVER BEEN in the Americas. The establishment of this library led to many great things – universities, public services, the first American writers and novelists, and, eventually, a cohesive nation.

“These libraries,” said Franklin, “have improved the general conversation of the Americans and made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries.”

Quite a feat in 1741, a year in which European eyes would first view Alaska, the temperature rating of Celsius was invented, and the concept of mineral water was born. This was a time when Americans were viewed as backward bumpkins, most of their elite (including Ben Franklin), leaving at one point or another to live, work and learn in London or Paris. Today, people from around the globe come to the United States to learn. It all began with a library.

I knew there was a reason why old Ben got his face on the big money. Thanks buddy, I owe you one.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

annagrace February 1, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Mary- an interesting, wonderful take on libraries & books. I remember with great love a friend who gave blood in order to buy a book and flowers for his sweetheart circa 1968…

I am an unabashed, unapologetic library lover. Omagod. All those books…. And I truly believe that literacy and unrestricted access to information are the cornerstones of democracy- hence the importance of public libraries.

I believe that our libraries are under siege. The disproportionate cut to the library budget will be felt this year. I hope you follow up with the impacts to the the OB library and beyond.


Mary February 1, 2010 at 8:21 pm

That’s the plan! I wanted to wait until the new hours were implemented in OB to delve into San Diego libraries in specific, but thought I’d start here with libraries in general. Glad you liked it!


Dave Sparling February 2, 2010 at 12:23 am

I agree, high tech might make plastic windows that allow you to read, but they will never replace a good book.


doug porter February 2, 2010 at 8:53 am

yay! public libraries!
another concept that “socialists and radicals” fought for and won, along with public parks and public education. a hundred and fifty years later the reactionaries are fighting back, seeking to eliminate, curtail and privatize these institutions, based on the faulty premise that we can no longer afford them.
of course they don’t tell you that the reason that money is tight is because they’ve all but eliminated progressive taxation.


lane tobias February 2, 2010 at 10:14 am

i loved this post mary. i too am a lover of the public library, and was a very frequent visitor in my youth. I credit much of my knowledge today to books – books that I can’t afford to BUY will only read ONCE and thus, are borrowed from a public library. the fact that they are under siege is disheartening…but we have done something about it in the past, and obviously, we are more prepared than ever – as a community – to fight for our little knowledge nook.

thanks for the history lesson!


Shane Finneran February 2, 2010 at 11:28 am

I enjoyed this article, too. Thanks, Mary. I’m looking forward to the San Diego-focused follow-up.

On the subject of Ben Franklin, who strikes me as perhaps the most amazing human being ever to walk the planet, did you know that, as a young swimming enthusiast, he fashioned up one of history’s first pairs of swim fins? Any time we find ourselves out in the OB waves with a pair on our feet, we’re channeling Ben.


Charlie G. February 3, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Great piece Mary! Thanks for the history on Ben. Since he is linked to so many progressive American ideas, it is no wonder he also helped incubate what would become the public library in this country. It is also interesting that it was launched with private support. Anna is correct (as always). San Diego’s libraries are taking successive hits with each budget cycle and the private sector is being forced to take on more of the burden. Thanks again.


Frank Gormlie February 3, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Wonderful words, Mary! Every book lover and every library lover needs to read this. Tears welled up as Patty read me your post.


Erin February 11, 2010 at 5:04 am

Whee! I was feeling downhearted because so much has been done to our San Diego public libraries lately. Your article made me feel a smidgen better! I, too, love the shit out of books and libraries and Benjamin Franklin and the OB Rag.

Looking forward to your update on the SD library scene.

I’m sharing this with my facebook friends :)


Frank Kern April 1, 2014 at 11:04 am

I really like reading through an article that can make people think.
Also, thanks for permitting me to comment!


Leave a Comment

Older Article:

Newer Article: