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Live near a library? You are a rich person

A person that lives near a public library is a rich person.

I first saw that sentiment expressed decades ago. It was on a T-shirt worn by a stranger. I have never put great stock in T-shirt wisdom, but I do believe that statement was profound. The statement is, in fact, loaded with profundity.

Public libraries provide equal access to all, rich and poor. The rich man and the poor woman are both treated with respect by the public librarian. The public library is truly an example of living democracy. Visiting the library is somewhat like entering the voting booth where each one of us, when we step inside, are equal to each of the previous voters.

The anonymous T-shirt philosopher’s declaration held a second diamond of wisdom.  Information is power. Libraries hold information. Equal access to information gives everyone, poor or rich, access to the immense possibilities that libraries hold.

Library patrons don’t walk into libraries poor and emerge at closing hour richer in dollars. But both rich and poor do exit those doors enriched in possibilities.

When I was young, Ely, Minn. had two public libraries; the community college library and the town library. In the Vermilion Community College library I discovered the very early issues of J.I. Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine. The pages of those fat little Reader’s Digest-sized magazines were printed on heavy newsprint-like paper. I still remember their texture, and I still remember excitedly paging through the back issues packed with Rodale’s wisdom about soil and agriculture. At the time I couldn’t afford a subscription, so I returned over and again to study those magazines. The possibilities in them changed my life forever.

Ely’s small town library also included a varied magazine collection. My wife and I were very young and very poor at the time. A pleasant evening out was one spent perusing the magazines in the comfortable quiet of the library. Among those magazines was Smithsonian. It was then, and is today, one of America’s premier publications. The writing is stellar, and the article’s subjects are always fascinating. But I remember most a small Smithsonian advertisement. It was an ad from a Chicago bank announcing an interest-bearing checking account. The year was 1970, and the very idea of an interest-bearing checking account was utterly revolutionary. Thanks to the public library we earned interest on that far away Chicago account until the early 1980s. Then bank regulations changed, and the service became common and locally available.

Later we lived in Marion, S.C. We could stroll from our apartment to the town’s modest Carnegie library that was fronted by a square with large live oaks. The big old trees, with their sweeping graceful limbs, seemed to invite all to enter the house of learning. Inside, my wife discovered a big fat anthology of the Sherlock Holmes stories. They delighted her, and she was kind enough to read a few to me. I discovered a book authored by the South Carolinian John C. Calhoun. I’d heard of Calhoun in American history class and here, in this little library, I could hold one of his books in my own hands. Senator and Vice President Calhoun was an apologist for slavery, but he also had one of the great American minds of the 19th century. The librarians would not let me take the book home. It was too old. So I returned repeatedly to study it. Calhoun warned against the two-party political system. He said it was undemocratic because the two parties, as they struggled for power, would eventually become nearly identical. Citizens, he said, would be the losers under two-party democracy. Hmmm! I wonder?

We eventually moved to Minneapolis. By luck and accident we lived just three blocks from the downtown branch of the public library. How rich could we get, we thought. This beautiful, spacious, and well-lighted building was a pleasure to visit. In addition, a Minneapolis Public Library card allowed us to use a vast network of libraries across the Twin Cities. Any book, periodical, piece of music, or article imaginable was available to us for the asking. The Minneapolis library even loaned artworks for patrons to take home. All this before the worldwide web!

In the mid-1980s, when we settled for good near Long Prairie, there was great change coming to the Minnesota library world. The creation of the regional library system was well underway. Regional libraries would provide remarkable benefits to rural and small town patrons. As wonderful as the Ely and Marion libraries were they could not compare to the vast resources of the Minneapolis public library network. Minnesota’s 12 regional library systems have now united small town libraries with each other. The Great River Regional Library system, which includes Long Prairie and more than 30 other towns, now gives my wife and I access to as much information as was available when we were in the Minneapolis library system. Part of the beauty of this arrangement is that we get this but still have the charm of a small town library.

Now we live near not only one public library but more than 30 of them. We are truly rich.

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