Life in the Library

My husband is a huge fan of public libraries. He’s been going to various public libraries in the NYPL system since he was a child. We still have his worn, paper library card dating back to his childhood. When people ask him where he got his law degree, he tells them, “the public library.” Once married to him, I started tagging along on his weekly library expeditions. And since our 17th anniversary is right around the corner, I have 17 years of library observations under my belt.

Back in the day (is 17 years really¬†that long ago?) people were in libraries for books. There were few computers in branches, and most of those were use for word processing and printing. Somewhere around 2000 people began using the libraries for internet access, and within a few years there were stacks of laptops at checkout desks available for hourly use. Around 5 years ago I noticed a tipping point where there was far more internet/ laptop use than book browsing. In branches in poorer areas the patrons are there exclusively for access to the laptops and internet. In wealthier branches it’s about 70/30 in favor of laptops to books.

And what do people do on these laptops? Yes, I snoop, and it’s always one of three things: youtube music or movie videos; video games (even for the adults), and less often, facebook or a similar social networking site.

Today, at our local branch, which is one block down from a blighted area and housing project, there was not a single patron with a book (unless you count my family). Every last person was on a laptop (one person was asleep in a chair, but was later on a laptop). There were many children there– most of them unattended, and in fact I saw some very young children (age 3 or 4) with only slightly older siblings watching them. They hunkered down with the laptops watching rap videos and playing mindless video games. Everyone there looked either poor or homeless. Of course, I don’t know for a fact they were poor or homeless– appearances can be deceiving– when I first met my sister’s future father-in-law I thought he was a vagrant, but he turned out to own an aeronautics company. But I don’t think there were any stealth moguls in this crowd.

So when people complain of a digital divide, I do wonder, what divide exactly are they talking about, if poor people are using the computers for video games and youtube? It’s not that poor people don’t deserve to waste their time on youtube and video games, but I would think people without access to these mindless time suckers might actually be ahead of the game, intellectually speaking. In fact I’ve noticed an amazing thing with my kids: when I turn off the TV and forbid video games, they start reading.

One of the semi-attended young children at the branch today started crying over something her sibling-slash-babysitter did to her, so I made a point of sitting next to her with my own daughter and read a book out loud, thinking it might distract both of them. The little girl listened and stared at the book, entranced. There were lift up flaps and I asked her if she wanted to lift them up. The first few times I asked she looked puzzled, and finally she tentatively reached out a hand to lift up the flap for the picture underneath. I wondered if she’d ever looked through a flap book before (my little kids always love them), or even had a book read out loud to her, since she clearly found the experience so strange.

It reminded me of a time when I was younger– I had an interest in photography and would wander through the poorer parts of the rural town where I grew up, photographing abandoned mills. Once I came upon a small herd of children playing unattended. They came over to me, fascinated, asked about my camera, and asked to go through my bag where I happened to have a book of fairy tales (why I was carrying it I don’t remember). Feeling in a friendly mood I offered to read it to them, and I sat down on the ground to read out loud. They were transfixed and hung on every word, and I realized, while reading to them, that this was a very new experience for them, and they may well have never been read to before.

The irony here is that most of my seven children had no interest in being read to. Whenever I sat them down for a good book, they squirmed, sat upside down, grabbed the book, complained hysterically about who was sitting on which cushion, it was always a nightmare. The exception might be my 2 year old, who, despite not speaking, loves paging slowly through books and having them read to her. She’ll even page through books without pictures with a look of keen interest in her eyes.