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Czech All the Libraries, or the Secret Dream of Librarians

by on August 19, 2016

Having a keen interest in libraries and much experience with working in one, I decided to read an article I came across in the New York Times about Czech libraries. As is the modern custom, this article had a clickbait headline. And though I am keen to feel superior to the cheesy desperation of clickbait headlines, the article you’re reading now probably has a clickbait headline, too.

The clickbait headline the New York Times used was “Why Libraries Are Everywhere in the Czech Republic.”

A normal person wouldn’t find that to be clickbait and would simply say to themselves, “Probably because of some law passed in the early 1900s soon after Czechoslovakia emerged as an independent country.” And then they would move right along in the Internet to see if anyone has come up with a new potato chip flavor.

But we in the library community are not normal people. You, especially, seem pretty odd to me. I mean that in a good way. And when we read “Why Libraries Are Everywhere in the Czech Republic,” our hearts start racing. Our eyes bulge alarmingly from our sockets. We tremble. We are excited! Because we hold in our hearts a secret dream, a vision that we dare not name. We know it’s mad. We don’t speak of it even among ourselves, sometimes not even to ourselves. Actually, this would make a really good clickbait title for this article: “The Secret Dream all Library Workers Share but Will Never Admit.”

We secretly believe that the whole world should be a library. That we should be able to borrow everything for free. Just so long as we bring it back. It should mostly be books, though.

Books, clothes, cars, books, power tools, furniture, telephones, books, glassware, pens, cleaning supplies, Caravaggio paintings, houses, and books. If store after store in my city were libraries loaning all these things, along with books, if every house on my block were a library house that I could check out for three weeks, I’m not sure I’d really need to own anything. There is your strange paradise, maybe even a secret restatement of reality itself: The world is really a library. Everything is free. But everything is borrowed.

Here is how clickbait really works. It leads you into imagining something wild and wonderful. It may not even be conscious, but it sets your heart aiming for the stars. And then when you click, and that clickbait article is fleshed out, you are left with the corpse of your mighty dream. It sits deflated in your hands and you feel so embarrassed that you ever hoped for so much that you go ahead and read the article like it was all perfectly reasonable all along and never broke your heart at all.

Libraries aren’t everywhere in the Czech Republic. In 1919, Czechoslovakia passed a law requiring every community, no matter how small, to have a library. Well, that’s not so bad, I guess. I can live with that. Oh, except they got rid of that law fifteen years ago and lost 11 percent of their libraries since then.[1] The New York Times could have written an equally accurate article with the headline, Why over 600 libraries have closed in the Czech Republic.

 At this point you are probably wondering, “What does he have against this innocent article in the New York Times about Czech libraries?” It’s a long list, so I’ve decided to go with just this one thing. Sure it’s petty, but you should see how petty the rest of my list is.

At some point in the not very long New York Times article, we come to the following paragraph: “Czechs developed a strong reading habit, and even today, those who visit libraries buy more books — 11 a year, on average — than others.”[2]

I don’t know about these budget-slashing Czechs, but at my library we’ve got tons of books. One doesn’t buy them. We loan them out for free. That’s sort of the point.

Reference (click at your own peril)
[1] Hana de Goeij, “Why Libraries Are Everywhere in the Czech Republic,” New York Times, July 21, 2016.
[2] Vit Richter, director of the Librarianship Institute of the Czech National Library, ibid.

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