In an era of increased book banning, library defunding and even bomb threats, it seems that now more than ever I ought to make clear how valuable and central libraries have been to my life and success.
The first library I ever entered was in my elementary school. We were allowed to go for one hour once a week. I remember being in awe of the space: a rectangular room lined with wooden bookshelves, stacked floor to ceiling with books.
I remember thinking as a small child that I was in a cavern of tomes written by people across time and around the globe, that each volume probably contained thousands of ideas, and I wondered how could I get all of those ideas into my mind.
I was a mission-driven reader. I wanted to know things, all of them. I had a craving for facts, instructions, know-how. But I wouldn’t willingly read narrative nonfiction until assigned it, and I wouldn’t come to enjoy it until college.
That may be because of the small book collection we had at home, gathered in our tiny, homemade, hallway bookshelf, about 3 feet square with three shelves. One shelf stored a set of encyclopedias — white with red stripes on the binding and red lettering on the cover — while the others were random books that my mother grabbed when the high school library thinned its stacks at the end of each year.
They were all reference books. That was what I imagined all books were. I read encyclopedia entries all the time. It was the modern-day equivalent of going down a rabbit hole while web surfing.
Had we had a public library in town, I would have spent my days in it, but we didn’t. The nearest one was 8 miles away in the town of Arcadia, Louisiana. In fact, the town where I grew up — Gibsland, named after a man named Gibbs, whose plantation it had been — didn’t open its own library branch until this year, nearly 140 years after the town held its first elections.
Ironically, Gibsland is now a dying town whose population has been declining for decades. About half as many people live there now — 773, to be exact, according to the Census Bureau in 2020 — than in the year I was born.
But particularly for these kinds of people, living in rural areas, libraries can be an incredible tool. When I was a senior in high school, I won my way to the International Science and Engineering Fair. That year, 1988, it was being held in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was the first time I would fly and the first time I would travel far from home.
Determined not to expose myself as a hick, I went to the library in Arcadia and checked out every book of etiquette on the shelves. They were familiar to me — reference books, books of rules that in my mind were the only thing separating me from the appearance of refinement and sophistication. I devoured those books.
I guess you could say that now, all that information can be found online, but high-speed broadband is not as ubiquitous as you might think. In 2019, the Pew Charitable Trusts explained that the number of Americans without broadband “could be over 163 million,” and that included 40% of schools and 44% of adults in households with incomes below $30,000.
I must applaud Joe Biden’s administration for using billions of dollars of American Rescue Plan funding to help close this digital divide, but for those who still lack high-speed internet, it is libraries that help fill in the gap.
Again in college, it was in libraries that I found myself, not only physically but spiritually. It was in books in the college library that I first saw and read about openly queer people, that I first read about the Stonewall Riots and the gay rights movement. The books were stored in a corner of the library that almost no one seemed to visit, but I went there often.
In the stacks, I learned that my difference wasn’t anomalous. Up to that point, even in college, I had never met a person who was openly queer.
And years ago, when I was writing my first book, I found myself in the main branch of New York City’s public library not because I needed to do research — the book was a memoir — but because the space itself seemed most aligned with the task of writing. It was like going to church to pray.
These are just some of the ways libraries have touched my life. Indeed, I can’t imagine arriving at this place in my life without them.
Charles M. Blow (Twitter: @CharlesMBlow) is a columnist for The New York Times, where this piece originally appeared.