Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Wonder of the World

My eldest daughter has been reading a book called The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs for her guided reading group at school. As a part of her "enrichment" for this book, she has been required to come up with her own wonders -- the Wonders of Our Town, as it were. The first wonder she decided on -- entirely without my prompting, I swear -- was our local library.

She wrote it all up with an explanation of why it was a wonder, included a couple images from the web, and turned it in. Her teacher told her she would accept the assignment but -- here's the kicker -- "a library isn't really a wonder."

Excuse me?

Now, you're all going to have to sit back while Bookivore gets on her soapbox a bit. A library isn't a wonder? It most certainly is, sister, and I'm going to tell you why.

Notwithstanding the fact that lists of the Wonders of the Ancient World are somewhat fluid, and that the Great Library at Alexandria was one of the most famous scholarly attainments of the ancient world, the modern library stands as one of the most amazing social institutions humans have ever come up with.

Trinity Library

Libraries back in the day were the privilege of the wealthy. If you had money, you could buy books, which because they were hand copied and hand bound were quite expensive. If you had a lot of money, you could buy a lot of books. Ten books in the time of say, the Venerable Bede (around 700 AD), for an average citizen (i.e., not a monk) was a massive collection. Only monasteries and kings had true libraries.

Atheneaum Club Library, London

Even after the invention of the printing press began to put more books in the hands of the lower classes, libraries were not for the masses. Some libraries were housed by gentlemen's clubs. A lending library, of the kind mentioned in Jane Austen's books, was enjoyed by subscription only -- you paid a fee for the luxury of borrowing books and newspapers.

Contrast that with today's libraries, where anyone, regardless of income, class, race or political leaning can obtain a card for free and borrow books, DVDs, CDs, and audiobooks, as well as access newspapers, magazines and reference materials.

According to NPR, about 100 million Americans don't have access to the Internet. Well, at the library they do. And for that, you don't even need a card.

Children's Library, Japan

Children's libraries, which are very much a thing of the last century or so, are even more wonderful. They are about the business of putting books into the hands of children, which we all know is a springboard to improved achievement in school.

They provide sunny, creative places for children to enjoy reading and explore literature. And beyond that, they often offer a multitude of programs to introduce children to books and encourage them to use the library.

Central Lakes College Children's Library, Minnesota

All my children went to story time at the library, which in our community is available for children from birth through the preschool years. As they get older, there are book clubs, bedtime story activities (come to the library in your jammies -- cool!) and a host of other awesome programs.

Bridgeport Children's Library, West Virginia

Today, during our Spring Break, we went to the library and saw a magician. Not only did he do magic for the kids, but he spent a good portion of the hour teaching them tricks. Each child got a magic kit to take home with props for 5 tricks they learned this morning and a booklet detailing 20 more they could teach themselves. There was a cart at the back of the room full of books about magic -- stories about magicians and magic shows and how-to books for those who wanted to learn more sleight of hand tricks. About 60 kids were there, ranging in age from 3 to 10. And the whole thing was free.


Princeton Children's Library

Over the last few years, my children have heard professional storytellers, touched animals from the zoo, and made any number of crafts on Drop In Craft Day. They love the library, and with good reason.

Forest Library, Seoul, Korea

A hundred years ago, such a place would have been unthinkable. Nowhere else have education and literature and history and achievement and encouragement and information and technology come together in such a fantastic display of democratic spirit. And all for free. A library absolutely is a wonder.

And don't you forget it.

Images from Galton.org, BarnesandNoble.com, Wordpress.com, UniversityofVirginia.edu, National Diet Library, Fairfield CT Children's Library, Central Lakes College Library (MN), Bridgeport West Virginia Library, Princeton Children's LIbrary from Wikimedia.org; Forest Library in Korea courtesy of Seoul Forest Parks.seoul.go.kr.

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