A Community House


Baltimore has a new librarian! We hail her and wish her well. Meanwhile, here in Govans we await the reopening of our refurbishing Govans Branch, closed since 1990 ("for repairs") and at one time thought never likely to reopen.

What turned the fate of Govans Library around was a grass-roots coalition of concerned citizens, Friends of Govans Library, which appealed to the mayor and -- most significantly -- offered to help assist with volunteers and donations. As a result, the mayor made a commitment and presto! The library will reopen June 30! The Friends of Govans Library are now busy recruiting volunteers and raising money in Govans, Homeland, and surrounding communities and working to enlist the support of area businesses and professionals.

"A library is the information resource of a community," they teach you in library school. But it's much more than that. It's a warm friendly place where helpful people answer your questions and there are thousands of books to take home and read. Books full of fun and pictures, and later, in the adult section, books filled with excitement and wonderful words and wisdom -- truly "the best that has been thought and said in the world," to use Matthew Arnold's lovely line.

"A university for the people" said Andrew Carnegie, who founded and funded many, not only in his homeland, America, but in my homeland, England, for which I shall always be grateful.

As a young man the public library was my university, long before I felt need of the paper values that only universities confer. Today, a library is not only a treasure house of books and printed things but also of recordings and videos and computer software and all the other wonders of the information age.

So when a library is closed, thought dead, and then is reopened, it's like a miracle, a resurrection and a rebirth. Sometimes it's necessary for us to have things we value taken from us in order to be made aware of their worth. We don't think how valuable our friends are until they leave us, and funeral words remind us how much we took for granted. So it is with a closed library. And when it is raised from the dead, it is like so many who have had near-death experiences: transformed, inspired, enlightened, seeing the old world in a new light.

For it is all too easy for a community to accept the services provided by government as humdrum and customary, part of the familiar cityscape. But once a community has been mobilized to reverse a library closing, the scene changes. The community is no longer a passive, served public, but an active partner and participant, a stakeholder in its own institution.

And it is forced to ask fundamental questions such as "What is a library for? Why do we need it? How can it serve today's needs and the needs the future, for all the members of our community?"

In our community we are fortunate to have information specialists, teachers and writers, as well as students, families, business people and professionals. We want to be sure all their needs are met, for information primarily, but also for meetings and readings and lectures. We want it to be a model of what a branch library should be, an information center that helps keep us in touch with our neighborhood, our city and the world.

Govans Library has an interesting history. It began in 1903 as a project of the Neighborhood Club of Govans, when the ladies collected $50 to start a community library. It was housed in a member's home and by 1914 had over 1,000 volumes.

In 1919 they persuaded E. Glenn Perine, the Master of Homeland, to donate a plot of land, and four years later Govans Library became #22 in the Enoch Pratt Free Library system. Mr. Perine, who was 96, received the first library card. Of the opening ceremony the club' library chairman wrote: "There was rare good fellowship of feeling in that early day in autumn, for it means the nearest approach to a community house that Govans has had."

"A community house!" That says it all. Not a city building serving a faceless population, but a home for great writings and reproductions and recordings treasured by people who value things of the mind. A home where children and teen-agers and adults are welcome and everyone is invited to share in the wealth of the printed word.

When my wife was visiting England recently, she stopped by the local library, which had a notice outside that ran something like this: "Owing to the effects of the recession and the large number of unemployed, library hours have been extended . . . " They didn't need a slogan like "A City That Reads." They didn't need to be pressured. They just did it.

That's how we feel in Govans too. We love our library, and we intend to keep it open. Enoch Pratt was our neighbor, living in the big house on Woodbourne Avenue. We think he'd have agreed.

John Brain is a Baltimore writer and publicist.

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