L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez's son, Andrew, in New Orleans. (Jeff Lopez )
Several years ago a young man who was majoring in philosophy and French got a part-time job in his university library to help pay his bills. Over time, it occurred to him that he loved that hallowed sanctuary, surrounded each day by bound volumes of ideas and by records of our history. He knew then what he wanted to do with his life and went on to graduate school to study library science.
Today, he's a librarian at a college in New Orleans, helping rebuild a collection wiped out by Hurricane Katrina.
His name is Andrew, by the way, and he's my son.
So yes, I have a bias when it comes to librarians and libraries. I even got married in a library. And it's no fun watching the profession and the institution take hits these days, with libraries shut or scaled back and in some cases privatized. Meanwhile, I'm struck by the number of people who see no tragedy in this and think society no longer has much use for libraries.
"We have the Internet; we don't need a library at all," Bill Maher said recently on his TV show. Then he added: "I don't know anyone who's been to a library since 1998."
The comment was a little out of touch, to say the least. In this economy, I know a lot of people who rely on the library for books or videos or to research job prospects. Many libraries have seen greater traffic as more people need them. More than 1 million Californians visited a library on a single day in October 2010, according to a survey by the California Library Assn.
Yet despite the interest and the need, the American Library Assn. says 60% of all libraries report that funding is either flat or decreasing, and 16% of all libraries have reduced their hours. I recently wrote about the Los Angeles Unified School District laying off more than 200 library aides and reducing the hours of nearly another 200. About 100 library aides were later reinstated, but even when they return to work, the number of district schools with no trained library staffer could still be in the hundreds.
Last week, I was on a related topic, writing about a West Hollywood library page who lost her job.
"It is obvious you have overlooked the constant drum beat of i pad and smart phones that have nailed the coffin on libraries," a reader wrote. "What is the sense in trying to prop up such relics…I am surprised that you do not see what is truly going on."
What's going on, with all due respect, is the devaluation of great institutions that define a civil society and offer hope, security and opportunity even as economic disparity grows. The combination of a bad economy and overheated contempt for government threatens Social Security, Medicare, public and higher education, libraries and more.
Fortunately, there are still some people out there who understand the value of a library. On Monday night, in a citywide Library Foundation program called Literary Feasts, 50 Angelenos hosted a dinner attended by an author, with hundreds of thousands of dollars raised for programs catering to children and teens in L.A.'s city libraries.
I was the author at the Pacific Palisades home of Victoria Foote, a philanthropist and child education advocate who later sent me a passionate, 14-point bulletin on why libraries matter as much, if not more, than ever. Among other things, she said libraries serve as havens for many children, provide computer and Internet access for those who have neither, and unite community members of all ages for various events. And all of this is free.
For me, there's a critical symbolic value to libraries as well. Their very existence tells us that books are so vital to our intellectual well-being that we keep them on display in special buildings and pass them between each other, as if they were community treasures.
Last month, I had the privilege of watching my son teach a class in New Orleans, helping English students understand what's in their library and how — given the blur of information available today — to judge the credibility of the information they dug up.
Libraries, my son says, "Organize, preserve, and provide access to the human record. I'm talking clay tablets, medieval manuscripts in unknown languages, and Nietzsche's laundry list, not to mention 'Meet the Fockers' and tons of other popular and not-so-popular materials of all sorts. They are increasingly one of the last free spaces for people to meet and do homework, hang out and read, attend a free lecture or a reading, or look for a job, and to get assistance along the way."
Andrew said he shudders at the thought of a post-library world led by people self-educated on the Internet.
"Do you really want these people planning policy, looking after your dying parents, brewing your coffee? With a plethora of library catalogs, databases, and consortial borrowing mechanisms in place, rendering essentially every human document in existence accessible in about two weeks…there is no question that research and learning of a high quality is impossible without libraries. Exposure to new, foreign, and challenging ideas is absolutely vital for humankind.
"Libraries are a public good and a civic responsibility.
"They are about our future as much as they are our past....The notion that they could be replaced by Google is tantamount to suggesting that Americans are better off with vending machines instead of farmer's markets....Cut the libraries and you cut everything that goes with them, just as Thomas Jefferson knew well."
That's my boy.