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There is no frigate like a book

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

And no harbor like a library ,where those who love books but can’t afford their own complete collections, or those who need a computer, or kids who need a safe place to read after school, or moms with toddlers who want their babies to learn to read, can all come together and share in a great community resource.

The economic collapse has sent millions more Americans to their public libraries than used them in the past–25.4 million in 2009 compared to 20.3 million in 2006.  These are people who went to the library at least 20 times a year,not the ones who go in once or twice.  An additional 51 million Americans used their public libraries by remote computer–so one in four of all our citizens, including newborns and those in nursing homes, are using their public libraries.

The Chicago public library has already made deep budget cuts in the last three years: there’s been a hiring and promotion freeze, so that many branches are understaffed.  Hours have been cut.  Perhaps most worrying of all, acquisitions have been frozen.  No new books.  For the indefinite future.  If the economy recovers, you can build up new staff relatively quickly, but you can’t go back in time to acquire books that will have gone out of print.

I use three libraries in Chicago–the University of Chicago library, which is a ten-minute walk from my front door, the Newberry, which is a research and scholarly library, and the Chicago Public Library. When I chaired a panel this past September at the Bouchercon, the CPL was the only one of those three libraries that had books by some of the authors I was introducing.  When I wrote an introduction to a special edition of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the CPL was the only library that had all the biographies I needed to consult.  The Vivian Harsh collection is second to none in its coverage of African-American history and notable African-Americans in the arts and I have used it far more often than the university library’s special collections.

Please, Chicagoans: the future of our library is in the balance.  The next budget hearing is November 2. Please call your alderman and urge him or her to save the library budget.  It could be your kid who needs that place for a research project, it could be the book you want the library isn’t buying, it could be your job search you can’t conduct because the library is shut, or isn’t upgrading its computers.

Libraries in every jurisdiction in this country and in the UK are under similar threat.  If you live outside Chicago, the American Library Association can help you find out your library’s status, and how to take action to protect it.

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The printed word

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Is not a spent force.  On October 11 I attended the dedication of the University of Chicago’s new library, the Mansueto library.  At a time when many libraries, public and private, are cutting acquisitions to the bone, or moving books to remote storage facilities, the U of C has made a bold and strong commitment to the printed word. The building itself, designed by Helmut Jahn who perhaps can be forgiven in time for the United Terminal at O’Hare, looks like a space module, but the students adore it; kids wait in line for seats in the reading room.

The Mansueto library at sunset

The library has underground storage space for 3.5 million books, whose call numbers we hope have been entered correctly, since all the retrieval will be done by robots.  The library is space age meets writing.

I learned a few fun factoids at the opening, which I’ll pass along.  The famous library in Alexandria, whose collection burned down, stole some 200 scrolls from Athens–the collected works of Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus disappeared forever when the library burned down.  The Sorbonne library is the oldest university library in the west, and the first institution to work with Arabic numerals instead of Roman.

Google books has digitized original works in a random way, so that you get parts of different editions of books by Eliot or Dickens or Austen–if you want to get the complete copy of a particular edition, do try to use the printed book. Which, I also learned, is called a codex.

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