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Now, more than ever, we need our public libraries

In a classic Robert Mankoff cartoon, a king stands between a sand castle and the ocean. Facing the water with arm outstretched and hand pointed upward, he attempts to stop the waves.

Librarians used to shush or ask patrons to leave if they spoke above a whisper. I am not easily distracted, but in some recent visits to local public libraries, I've found it too noisy to read. Also, a lot of contemporary library furniture seems designed to encourage discomfort and taking materials out of the library to be enjoyed elsewhere.

Adults now think nothing of speaking loudly into cell phones in libraries, and children and many parents think nothing of their children running through libraries using their outdoor voices. In the past, folks who might have given dirty looks to any parent who brought a crying baby into a reading room would now be seen as the bad guy or gal if they showed any sign of disapproval. "How dare that person try to discourage that young parent and/or child from using the library? Doesn't he or she know how difficult it is to be a parent or child?"

Anyone who has ever endured someone else's child crying or kicking a chair back for an entire flight should be able to relate, but this behavior is a little more understandable on a flight because you can't very well take a child outside the plane for a walk.

Perhaps we're punting on first down when we don't object to disruptive behavior. In religious services, even some clergy think nothing of allowing their ring tones or texting to disrupt services, even funerals. ("He won't mind; he's dead.") People attempting to note the inappropriate nature of this behavior are usually met with, "I have to take this. It's a very important call," or worse, a look that condemns the accuser as a Luddite.

One of my favorite Ernest Hemingway stories is "A Clean Well-Lighted Place." It pleads the need for such places. In Washington Irving's day, when there were fewer people in New York City than there currently are in Tonawanda, there were an incredible number of clubs. One of my favorites was "The Humdrum Club." It was a very quiet place where husbands could go and sit in comfortable chairs and not have to do or say anything. The rich have their country clubs. What about the rest of us?

Perhaps the general attitude is, why keep or expand libraries that are almost obsolete? How or why would anyone attempt to stop the new waves of technology that are sure to replace libraries?

At the University at Buffalo, the Oscar Silverman Undergraduate Library was recently merged into the Lockwood Graduate Library. Lockwood was not physically enlarged to include the Silverman Collection, and there are triangular folded cards in every desk and study carrel encouraging patrons to use e-readers and other electronic devices to access books.

In recent years, Erie County executives and legislatures have closed too many libraries, including the two public libraries I used most as a kid. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need places that are quiet and comfortable and away from home. We shouldn't be charged extra for using them (or what are a government and a system of taxation for?), and they should be advertising-free zones. We all need breaks from the bombardment of ads in public spaces.

I am obviously not sold on the new technology. Loudon Wainwright III has noted, "One smart bomb takes out the whole Writer's Guild." Our advanced technology can still fail us. Cyber attacks are increasing in number and complexity. What if rebels in the hills blow up power lines? What if there's a shortage of batteries, or computer parts? What if advanced "aps" only become available to those who can afford them?

On a recent visit to Green Bay, I noticed a public library placed in a few stores in an underused strip mall. Lord knows we have lots of nearly empty strip malls. Maybe we could house libraries or smaller satellite libraries in some of them. They might even attract customers to the strip mall stores that are still in business.

When it comes to quality-of-life issues, we are not as advanced as we think. We will still need clean, well-lighted places and maybe even Humdrum Clubs.

We also should be building some sand bars and break waters to protect against these new waves of technology. For the foreseeable future, we will still need books, free spaces and the freedom to access them.


Dan Schwartz, J.D., Ph.D., is an educator and a former librarian living in Amherst.