Recently, an unidentified Instagram user posted about her visit to the public library. Comedian Maddy Smith had something to say about this, commenting that someone she follows on Instagram “thinks she discovered the library.” As she is a comedian, I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she intended a level of dry humour with her tweet, but—as happens to most comments made on the public discourse platform we call Twitter—shots were fired and weapons were raised in protection of a wonderful discovery and the wholesome social media content.
In absolute perfect timing, that same week, Chrissy Teigen visited her local library for the first time in 23 years and was equally as enthusiastic. She tweeted:
I just went to the public library for the first time in *23* years. I could not believe my eyes. Did group storytelling with Luna, ran around hiding in nooks and crannies, got inspired by 1 million cookbooks and spotted many a difference in a highlights magazine. was awesome. https://t.co/4wR0tdD5UL
— chrissy teigen (@chrissyteigen) August 7, 2019
My favourite part of the tweet thread was when she wrote:
“I walked in and was like “wait you can just….walk in?” then I walked out and was like “wait you can just…walk out?”
Discovering the Public Library
First of all, let me just say that I get where Maddy Smith is coming from. In the age of social media when we all feel the need to document everything, it can feel like people are making “discoveries” left, right, and centre. Like, the first time your best friend goes to the gym and starts preaching to you about how amazing the gym is, even though you’ve been a solid gym member for 10 years. I know what the gym is, Becky, I just don’t feel the need to Insta my every visit.
However, the public library suffers from a distinct lack of promotion. My cynical side says this is because they aren’t making anyone any money. The public library is a public service that brings a gentle respite to the capitalism we are drenched in. But this means that the library doesn’t get the publicity it deserves, which means it begins to lose funding, which means we are at risking of losing it.
Is it really free?
What stood out for me was Teigen’s disbelief that she could just walk into a library and walk back out again. Maddy Smith might be jovially mocking the Instagrammer who seems to think they discovered the library, but the reality is many people either have not “discovered” the library or aren’t fully informed on how it works. I’ve used the library since I learnt how to read, but when I moved cities for the first time and had to set up my own library card as an adult I had entirely forgotten that it is COMPLETELY FREE. I even lost my library card and had to get a new one and the librarian was incredibly overwhelming apologetic as she told me that my new one would cost two whole pounds. Outrageous.
Now maybe I’m inviting ridicule as I marvel at how a state-funded, public institution is free. I guess, technically, it’s not free. Your tax dollars (or pounds) are paying for it. So let’s take a quick look at the maths:
In 2017 the average household tax contribution to libraries was $7.50 per month. The average household consists of 2.53 people. A commercial paperback costs, at a minimum, $13.95. If an average American household reads one book each per month and they purchase each of the books, this will cost approximately $34.88. Which means that, if they borrow these books from the library, they’ve saved $27.38.
I read an average of 7–10 books each month. I cannot to buy all these books. Not if I want to eat. It would cost me upwards of $1,171 per year. Needless to say, I’m a big fan of the library.
But what if you don’t like reading books?
First of all, I would argue you just haven’t found the right book or genre of books and once you do, you’ll change your mind on liking to read. But even if you really hate books, libraries do a lot more than loan out books for free. They loan out audiobooks (which you can get by downloading a free app on your phone), ebooks, and sometimes ereaders. You can rent DVDs, CDs and video games (often at a small cost of $1 or $2, but that’s $1.99 less than online vendors), or gain access to computers and printers, attend an adult learning programmes, resources to build your business, streaming services and so much more. I’m still learning about ways I can better utilise my public library.
The truth is, not every library can do everything. And maybe your library doesn’t offer some of the things listed above. A lot of restrictions are down to a lack of funding and a lot are down to a lack of knowledge that these resources are on offer. Even if you don’t use your local library for any of the services listed above, or any of the myriad services not listed, what about those in your community who don’t have a choice?
What about the child from a low-income family whose parents can’t afford their habit of devouring ten books a month, but don’t want to discourage their child’s love of reading because of money? How about the single mother who can’t afford to have a computer or pay for wifi, but still needs to use the internet to look for a job? Or the stay-at-home parent who is grateful for a space with a plethora of toys to let their children run around in during the school holidays?
Libraries are magical places and I will happily tweet, Insta, and Snap all day about my ability to take out 50 books at a time with 15 renewals each if it lets just one person who doesn’t know such magic exists in on the secret. How about you?