It was a great day when I scored a library card at the wonderful Provincetown Library on Cape Cod. For no charge it’s now possible to get a library card at the P-town Public without being a Mass resident, or even a U.S. citizen.
Not only did it provide a blessedly tranquil breather from the tourist crush, it enabled me to check out museum passes, peruse local calendars and see the community from an insider’s point of view. It also gave my husband a brainstorm: a national library card to every library in the country that would double as an identity card, issuable upon entering school or becoming a citizen.
His idea would horrify some librarians, who can be understandably protective of their collections. But I couldn’t let it go. I asked Tom Ruane, Head of Circulation at the Provincetown Public, if this open policy resulted in lost books. He said that’s only been a problem with international borrowers. American residents tend to return materials.
Tax supported, free public libraries are a distinctly American invention. Although there’s debate over which public library was actually first, the shared purpose of these early institutions was making public education available to all.
It’s still true: if you want to engage in some non-test-driven, free-range learning, or even jumpstart a college education, the library is an excellent place to begin.
The message a national library-identity card would send to this sound bite culture is unmistakable: Reading is a real tool for self-improvement and true advancement. Plus in an increasingly monetized society, it’s free.
Throughout our history, waves of immigrants have understood this. They set up improvement societies and settlement houses - eager for education and new opportunity. They learned English, got library cards and used them.
Many studies have shown that the education gap between rich and poor is exacerbated by summer vacations in which the poor have limited opportunities for learning. Some educators even see year round school attendance as the solution.
But Phil McNulty, Director of the Newton Free Library in Newton, Mass, says studies have found that self-directed, interested reading - the kind that happens in libraries - is linked with future success - both in school and beyond. He says, “The excitement of picking out your own books is very different from assigned reading. It boosts a child’s interest in reading and the world.”
Public libraries are the last bastion of true democracy. As we celebrate our American identity, we’d do well to cherish them as the national treasures they are.