My debt to libraries for the research, the treats, the life lessons


I think it was Voltaire who wrote that entering a library always humbled him. Since I was a boy, entering a library has given me a different feeling — excitement. Perhaps if I’d thought more about it, I would have felt intimidated by all the knowledge stored on the shelves.

But as a boy, I felt a sense of adventure whenever I visited our town’s Carnegie library.

In grade school, I remember being particularly attracted to a series of biographies for young readers. Perhaps other baby-boomers will remember these books with their distinctive light orange covers and illustrations in black silhouette.

The most important lesson I learned from the series is that a person will likely have to struggle to attain a meaningful life, but such a life is the only one worth pursuing. That was true whether I was reading a biography of Galileo, Lincoln, Madame Curie or Helen Keller.

In middle school and high school, I dove into historical fiction. Two books that I remember fondly are Thomas B. Costain’s “The Silver Chalice” and Alexander Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo.” The first is set in the first century of the Christian era, the second in early 19th century France. Both books were thick and weighty, but that didn’t bother me. When I opened those pages, I was transported from my northern Illinois hometown, where life seemed so predictable, to Judea in the Roman Empire or a dungeon on a Mediterranean island. Now that was exciting.

Looking back on the various stages of my education, I can see the direct correlation between every year of study and increased time in libraries. When people ask me about my experience in grad school, my answer comes easily to mind. “My experience was great. Doing research, I practically lived in the library.” What I could add is that when I took breaks from my research, I would pull some fiction off the shelves to give myself a treat.

I am happy to learn that printed books, the kind with pages to turn that a person can hold in her hand, are making a comeback. Three cheers to bookstores, such as the wonderful Wild Geese Bookstore in Franklin, for all they offer. And four cheers and more to Benjamin Franklin, the namesake of my town, who, even when taken out of school at age ten to work, never lost his love of books. It was Franklin who first proposed the public library concept.

When I look in my wallet, I know that I can do without much that I store there. Money and credit cards are important, but I have lived happily with little money and without a credit card. But my library cards? No, I can’t live happily without them.

I feel a chill when I think how under different circumstances I might have grown up unable to read or far from a library. That would have been a life with little wonder and adventure, a life without a sense of the past, a narrow life.

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor of philosophy and religion. Send comments to awoods@

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