It might be that I don't know enough about the history and philosophy of libraries to hold forth on the topic, but I do know a committed, civic-minded, performance-driven librarian whose budget just passed yesterday, and who does a lot of personal good for the town where she works. And while I mostly didn't like the crotchety old ladies who ran MY library growing up, you'd've had to pry me out of there with a, like, a Twinkie or something if you wanted me to stop reading or shuffling my feet along the carpet and then touching the abstract bronze to get a shock. If I'd had a librarian who resembled this one, I might've been a lot better-read and a lot thinner (because, I guess the joke here is that someone was always prying me out of the library with Twinkies, I don't know).
So also there's Nancy Pearl...is she a phenomenon of Seattle, or does she make Seattle? Does it matter? Could I make a more obvious and done-to-death librarian-outsider reference? Anyway, from what I hear about the ALA conferences, Ms. Pearl comes out on stage through a burst of dry-ice smoke in a rhinestone-covered suit wearing a giant pair of cat's-eye glasses and the hall goes freaking nuts, and there's a reason for that and it's books.
But not just books. Most librarians have something a little off about them -- and I know how many of you there are out there, and that one or more of you might be reading this, and I want to be on record that "a little off" is JUST FINE WITH ME, but really, admit it -- and it's that slight touch of the mystic, a little witch-doctorishness that comes with knowing how to know...and I suspect that people either respect that or fear it.
And that fear might be the only reason that every library budget in the country doesn't pass with flying colors, the only reason that governments aren't building ever bigger, better public libraries, with huge windows and quiet rooms, auditoriums and exceptional collections, brand-new best-sellers gleaming in their ranks, tried and true classics lovingly stored alphabetically, the runic Dewey Decimal system ranging far and wide over human inquiry, placing all thought on an equal footing. Fear because knowledge is scary. You know why? I have to go back to Spidey, here, but with great power comes great responsibility. Once you know something -- say, about Darfur, global warming, evolution, the Tuskeegee study or where your own sewage goes when you flush, you can't un-know it. And even if you don't do something -- change your behavior, donate to a cause, enlist, quit your job, stop flushing so much -- you feel that nagging sense that you should be doing something. That nagging is discomforting. We like comfort. And that's why libraries inspire fear.
I guess they should. But in the meantime, you can also use them to escape, and that's just as important. So go ye forth, and get ye to your local public library, and kiss the industrial carpet, shake hands with the reference librarian, scream "thank you!" as loud as they'll let you (hint: not very) and take out a book. You'll be glad you did.