If you closely follow library stories across the world you may have come across this heartwarming one: A small rural public school’s largely abandoned library in Las Plumas County, California, was so outdated that it was unusable. A local writer, Margaret Garcia, had a dream of reopening this library, so she put out a call on her blog for people to send a book. Her blog post went viral and people sent in 47 million books!
I may not have that exact number correct. Indeed all of my facts here are like unto a crayon rendering of the actual story. But the main point is there were a lot of books donated. So many books that they’re reopening the library and don’t want any more books —just gift cards, money, and shelving.
If you haven’t before heard this story you have heard one like it. It is a man jumps in a flooded river to save a dog story. It is a whole town takes in a refugee story. It is hard to fault the story because it seems to restore faith in destiny, in generosity, and in the kindness of strangers. It says despite the problems out there with proper school library funding this good will can solve problems and make things better. And above all it says that people really care about books and libraries.
I am here to rain on your parade.
But don’t worry, the rain will cool off your heated excitement that might cause you to whisk out to buy an expensive hardcover copy of your favorite book to send to Las Plumas County. You may be able to afford one of those fancy hardcovers, but can you afford 4,000 of them? Because you know in your calm and rain cooled heart that there are surely 3,999 school libraries who could really use that book. Las Plumas is merely today’s lucky winner on the Internet. Everyone else lost.
Novelty news stories, stories of library lottery winners are fine, but they tell a shadow story. They secretly tell a story about that which is normal. School libraries founder and die all the time. They tell an unspoken story about all the lottery losers. And they weave a fantasy solution about books, libraries, and the power of the Internet. It is a cozy notion that libraries are simply books and by each of us donating a few books we can make a library. It is a less cozy notion that a library is good shelving; a viable cataloging system; a pleasant, safe space to be in with decent furniture and good light. And perhaps it is the least cozy notion of all that a library too is probably a person getting paid $56,880 dollars a year to deal with it all. The Las Plumas Library is going to need most of that to be a library. And in the excitement of the moment they may even get a large enough portion for a start. But they will need it next year and the year after that as well. Because in ten years, when their collection is sadly outdated again, and their library is closing from lack of school support, another one-in-a-million shot on the Internet is unlikely to hit again. Remember this: everything you see on the Internet also stands in for a million things no one sees.
I work in a large library in a big city and rarely does a day go by where I am not dealing with book donations. Like the generous donations to the Las Plumas Library they may be intended to save us too. I think we regularly get more donations than they even received in the bonanza in Plumas County. Sadly ours mostly consist of yellowed Ham and Pineapple Cookbooks from the fifties and the early works of Danielle Steele in vintage book club editions that have been fully seasoned by a couple decades of storage in a basement. There’s not much we can do with this stuff other than trying to trick people into buying them or furtively recycling them when that fails. All our donations together provide a rare few items we add to the collection and a small stream of miscellaneous income. If you took all the vast thousands of donated books we receive in a year you would not have a library. You would have a rummage sale. Which we do, twice a year.
But we do have a pretty good tax base here in my city. And a just steady enough commitment to libraries. The people of my county join together as The Friends of the Library to raise money and advocate. And these people also just manage to not elect charlatans who appeal to their flashes of emotion and tell them that we need not pay for anything good as a community. It can be taken care of by trusting to the largess of strangers. Rather they elect people who believe that the kindness of wealthy strangers that will save us is already ours, collectively, and the best way to save ourselves is to make sure that along with roads and water and sewers we first have libraries. This allows us to have a greasy but up to date collection of books and movies. It means we have shelving. We have great windows full of light, places to sit, and proper recessed lighting inside as well. And we have librarians, many of them, some good and some not so much. We have clerks and student workers and volunteers and board members, computer people and computers, and open doors seven days a week. We are a library. I am confident we will be around in five years. I am not so sure about the one in Plumas County. We in no real way rely upon the kindness of strangers. No library should have to, and very few that ever do will thrive, let alone survive.