Public Libraries: A Love Letter

Today is five years since the first supervisor meeting which marked the official start of my PhD. The research that followed took me to over eighty libraries in Australia, the US, the UK, New Zealand, and Canada, and led me to conversations and interviews with many library users and librarians. The PhD is now almost complete, but I suspect my interest and love for libraries is not simply a five year project. Like many anniversaries, today seems like a good time for reflection, and I began to ponder the question: who was I as a library user, and how has that changed?

I have a confession. I claim to be a lifelong lover of books, supporter of libraries, avid reader. I don’t think that’s a lie. But in 2011, when I first conceived of the idea of doing a PhD on libraries, I hadn’t stepped foot inside a library at all. When I started university in 2004, I pretty much stopped going to the public library and instead spent my time at the university library. I was that typical library user: heavy user as a child and throughout my school years, and promptly dropped off the radar after graduating high school.

Then I began researching libraries. I went to every library I came across, and spent a lot of time in the ones that were my case studies. I conducted interviews in them, went to storytime events, spent hours in local history libraries poring over old books and newspaper clippings. I was there before opening time and after the library closed to take photos and interview staff, and I saw the wonderful behind-the-scenes spaces where librarians work to make the libraries as wonderful as they are.

As I read and researched and wrote, and as I transcribed and analysed hours of interview data, libraries became both a source of frustration and refuge. There was one afternoon where I was thoroughly sick of the PhD and wanted to escape the theory, the writing, the work that seemed endless and impossible. So I went to the library.

Now, five years later, as my PhD is submitted and my revisions are with my supervisors, I am still at the library. I visit every library I come across in my travels and I still look at them through a researcher’s lens. And I go to my local library all the time. Far from the situation between 2004 and 2011 when I loved the idea of libraries and had a library card but rarely visited, I now love and use the library frequently.

Some of the library users I interviewed went to the library regularly mainly to take their children to storytime. Some attended book clubs or knitting groups, forming friendships and connections with neighbours that lasted years. Others used it as a place to unwind and de-stress, somewhere to hang out that was welcoming, pleasant, and free. Still others used the library mainly as a source of books, only stopping in to borrow items and rarely to linger.

These days, I am making excellent use of my library’s online catalogue and holds system. There is a great feature called the ‘for later’ shelf, where you can look up books you want to read and flag them to borrow later, and I have been using that to keep track of my ever-growing ‘to read’ pile and Read Harder challenge books.

I remain constantly amazed by the library: how it is open and accessible, how anyone can come in and read books on their shelves, how I can read books for free. I love the principles that underpin many public libraries—that knowledge and information should be accessible and free, that public spaces and social connections are important, and that collaboration, creation, and community enrich lives. And I remain ever grateful that they exist. To librarians and libraries everywhere, thank you.

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