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Libraries: Endangered Nurturers of the Spirit

July 14, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

There is a brilliant new movie called "Wings of Desire" playing around Orange County that has a public library as a central motif.

Much of the action takes place there, and the library is used as a symbol of the human soul and spirit. The film deals with the desire of a middle-aged male angel--don't let that put you off, please--to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh as well as the spirit, to somehow find a balance between such sensual pleasures as warming one's hands on a cold morning with a cup of coffee and the spiritual sustenance of a library.

The library scenes were highly evocative to me. I spent much of my boyhood in libraries, and I remember every detail of each of them today. The cavernous old stone building in my home town of Fort Wayne, Ind., that resonated with the sharp closing of a book. The ancient, vaulted library in nearby Decatur where the ceiling fans played a hushed obbligato that provided a wonderfully peaceful accompaniment to reading. The smaller, brighter, more intimate libraries in Columbia City, Ind., and Niles, Mich., where I was an anonymous visitor, prowling hungrily through unfamiliar stacks.

I always felt wealthy in a library, as if I were surrounded by vast riches that were mine for the asking, rather like the explorers in the movie serials I watched on Saturday who ran their fingers through a cache of diamonds and jewels when they discovered the buried treasure. I ran books through my fingers just as sensually as the explorers with their diamonds.

Anything was possible in a library. Trips to any part of the world. History seen in contemporary clippings from frayed files. Mystery. Adventure. Even titillation. There were no restrictions as long as the rules of quiet were observed, no one to raise a finger in restraint, no limit on the nourishment spread out for a curious and insatiable appetite. You could find one book and sit and read it through--transported for a few hours to another time and place--or you could browse endlessly, dipping in and out, making a two-hour game of selecting the three books you were allowed to check out.

I haunted secondhand bookstores when I was young and acquired for remarkably little money a library of about 300 volumes. When I was 14, my family moved to a modest apartment in Florida where my father had found a sales job in that Depression year. He told me that we would be unable to take all of my books and that I would have to select 50 to take along. That was rather like being told to turn your back on five-sixths of your family. I agonized for weeks over that decision, and the day before we left, I packed my 250 orphaned books into a box and carried them to the Ft. Wayne Public Library. The librarian accepted them gravely, thanked me for the gift and assured me the books would be given a good home. I've been afraid ever since to find out if he told me the truth. It would have devastated me had the books not been there.

One of the great regrets of my adult life is that the pursuit of a livelihood has virtually destroyed those childhood reading habits. I never seem to have time to read beyond the material I have to read to support the work I do. That hasn't stopped me from collecting books, however; I still do that greedily, drawing some solace from the knowledge they are there, when the time comes. My son, who is now a college professor, used to check the books behind my bed to see if the cast had changed or the bookmarks had moved up. Most of the time they hadn't. He never understood that the mere presence of the books comforted me.

The day after seeing "Wings of Desire" prompted these musings, I read a piece in The Times Opinion section that started out with the question: "Are public libraries facing extinction?" Although the thrust of the article was how libraries might best serve the burgeoning minority population and how to take advantage of the newest technical advances--both commendable goals--the article also pointed out that libraries are badly pinched for operating funds (the library in Shasta County was recently boarded up when voters defeated a property tax fee for its support), one-third of the nation is illiterate, 40% of young adults don't read books and "only" about 25% to 30% of the general population uses libraries at all.

I found the first three points devastating and the last one encouraging. One of the enduring legacies Howard Jarvis left us with his Proposition 13 is the impoverishment of our educational and cultural institutions, both of which provide food for the human soul and spirit. And now local voters are compounding the felony by preventing their own children from enjoying the library facilities made so generously available to them when they were young. It's a bum rap.

But I was pleased to learn that 25% to 30% of our population uses public libraries today. I suspect the figure has never been much greater than that, but is this a reason for shutting down these facilities, or starving them by withholding public funds? There are many public services offered to much smaller segments of the population than this. And the people who use libraries are quite likely the people who provide our society with the tone, the flavor, the heart and soul and spirit that separates us from high-tech automatons.

No one should be more aware of this--or more anxious to see public libraries supported strongly--than the seniors of this country who had the opportunity to grow in them. I suppose we can't do anything about computers replacing books--although I can't imagine fondling a computer--but at least we can work as hard as we know how to preserve the public libraries of our community.

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