Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Most of us take libraries for granted, without appreciating what amazing things they are. Imagine having to buy even a fraction of the books, CDs and movies we can borrow freely from even the most meager local branch, whose total inventory might be worth millions.

They also serve you and your neighbours in other, less appreciated ways. Many offer free internet access to everyone, including the 20 percent of Americans who are not online. They often act as a community centre, hosting meetings and events of everything from the Boy Scouts to the PTA to the local Tidy Town volunteers.

Your branch might offer weekly storytelling for children or night courses for adults. I knew one library that featured the art of local painters, perhaps their only recognition, and another that published short-run collections of local students’ fiction, giving aspiring teen writers like myself a start. A library might offer bound volumes of now-extinct local newspapers, records and other information forgotten in an age of Google.

Even more useful than the books or activities, though, is the principle behind libraries, that we and our neighbours can pool our resources and hold things in common that all of us occasionally need. Most of the Western World, however, adopted this principle for books and then stopped, never extending it to other obvious areas of life.

In fact, the trend of the last few decades has been the opposite – people bought more and more of their own private stocks of anything, no matter how expensive or little-used: a row of ten family homes might have ten rakes, ten chainsaws, ten barbecue pits and ten Dora the Explorer videos, each of which is used for only a few hours a year.

Those same neighbours could save a lot of money, though, if they pitch in and buy a shed full of tools together – a rake, shovels, saws, hammers and so on. Most of the tools would be there when needed, but each contributor would spend only a tenth of the price on them. There might be more wear on the tools, but there might also be more people taking care of them and making them last longer.

Any small community could also keep a library of seeds. Many garden megacenters carry only a few varieties of anything, often shipped from around the world, sometimes genetically engineered to yield only a single year’s crop. A seed library would be inexpensive insurance against unforeseen events – drought, fuel shortage, worsening economy -- that might make seeds might be harder to come by and more urgently needed.

Everyone needs medical care sooner or later, and while prescription medicines should not be casually traded or used past their sell-by dates, many other first aid items could be kept together in a neighbourhood or apartment building – bandages and plasters of various sizes, surgical spirits (rubbing alcohol to Americans), hydrogen peroxide and painkillers, as well as thermometers, blood pressure wraps, swabs and other basics.

Food doesn’t exactly lend itself to re-use, but cooking supplies do, and many people have things like steamers, pressure cookers, woks, fryers and other expensive equipment that they use rarely and that could be kept in a common stock.

Any parent knows that children love new toys but are quickly bored with them, and they gradually accumulate in a child’s room until digging through them becomes an archaeological project. If each family were to frequently clean out the toys their children don’t use, however, they could create a toy library for the community, whose toys could be used and re-used.

Finally, to come full circle, you could keep books that might be useful in times to come – gardening, home health care, water filtration – and books to tell future generations what was happening to us. You can recommend such publications to public libraries, and perhaps consider joining your local library board – I used to cover the library board as a reporter, and they are usually a small group of elderly people whose hard work and subtle power goes unappreciated. They will need more volunteers as state and county funds grow scarce, and by joining the board yourself, you make sure they do not fill up with people trying to use public funds to push a single religious movement or political party.

One easy way to start would be for you and your colleagues to engage in a spring cleaning together – books you finally admit you aren’t going to read, clothes that might come back in style in ten years and rarely-used tools from the garage. People have more than they realise, and find less clutter a relief – and since many might fear abuse of the system, it’s often best to start with things people won’t miss anyway.

Such abuse – members not giving back what they borrow – can happen, but it happens in public book libraries too, and it is rarely fatal. Things like power tools, of course, are more expensive than books, so members might have to keep them secure and enforce membership fees, security deposits or late charges to make sure everyone plays by the rules.

The details will depend on your group, of course, and “group” here could be almost anything. It could be you and a few neighbours sharing a shed, your congregation storing some common goods at the church, the Girl Scouts asking to store a cabinet of seeds at City Hall, or the town’s 4-H Club keeping a shed of equipment for members to check out. It could be poker buddies going in on a chainsaw, or people in a college dormitory time-sharing their textbooks. The principle is the same – most of us have more than we need, and not enough.

Whatever the circumstance, though, try to gradually open it up to more and more people, even at a greater risk. A few scattered libraries create tiny pockets of assistance in a troubled culture, but an overlapping network of such collaborations would help restore something the culture has lost.

Brian Kaller is a former newspaper editor now living in rural Ireland. He has written for the American Conservative, writes a weekly newspaper column on dealing with the future, and blogs at www.restoringmayberry.blogspot.com.

Local publishers rush to fill digital demandState of the states - Feb 23

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