Defund the Library: a short story

This story is a work of fiction. As such, it does not necessarily represent the opinion or views of the author or of anyone else involved in its transmission.

Jasper Stevens gazed across the Westfield Free Library. He smiled a small, private smile. At times he had doubted that his dream could ever change to reality. Some of his friends had told him, time after time, that it couldn’t be done. Some had even added that it shouldn’t be done. But Jasper’s stubbornness carried him to success. He had found support, enough to counter the opposition. He had scrambled to find the resources he needed, sometimes at the very last minute. He had prayed. Most of all, though, he had believed that he was right. Now, the evidence before him assured him that he had indeed been right, that his dream had been worthy, and that his efforts had been aimed at a good and proper goal.

The problem began five years earlier, when Jasper walked into the Public Library with his friend, Gus Michaels. Jasper and Gus had been dismayed to see a large, rainbow-themed display filling the Children’s Wing of the library. In his younger days, Jasper had loved the rainbow, the beauty it held, the hope it promised. He read in the Bible about the rainbow revealed to Noah after the Great Flood, the Lord’s promise that He would not destroy the Earth again with a flood. Jasper’s own childhood bedroom had been decorated with a rainbow theme. But, while he was in college, Jasper learned that a small segment of the population had taken the rainbow to represent their own views and behavior. They had changed the rainbow, as they had earlier changed the word “gay,” so that it now belonged to the homosexual students on campus. Jasper and his friends in Campus Crusade had founded a movement which they called Reclaim the Rainbow, but the college administration had banned his group. College officials told Jasper and his friends that they were being intolerant, unloving, and unChristian. From that experience, Jasper learned not to be outspoken about his beliefs, not to object out loud when people demonstrated in favor of behavior and opinions that Jasper understood to be sinful, unBiblical, and wrong.

As a parent, Jasper had remained quiet while other parents confronted the Westfield School District about teaching materials in the schools that violated community standards. He had silently agreed with the parents who objected, but he had kept quiet. When elections were scheduled, Jasper voted for school board candidates who advocated traditional standards in the schools. Sometimes they won; other times they lost. Jasper shuddered when some people attended school board meetings and rose to say outrageous and inappropriate statements in defense of the time-honored standards. He had rolled his eyes when some of those statements were reported in the big city newspapers and in the national news. He hated to see Westfield labeled as a home to bigotry and ignorance. He especially hated to see that happen when offensive things were said in support of what Jasper believed, making the proponents of new and changing ways seem reasonable and acceptable. But Jasper stayed on the sidelines. He didn’t want to get involved.

It seemed at first that the Public Library was also staying out of the fight. To Jasper, the library had always been a safe place. He could find books he wanted to read and could bring them home; he could ignore books with which he disagreed. He was even quietly proud that all ideas were available in the library, since he believed that bad ideas inevitably lose when they are placed next to good ideas. Jasper was pleased that the Public Library was available to everyone in Westfield: children and adults, wealthy and middle-class and poor, able-bodied and limited in sight or hearing or mobility, white and black, English-speaking at home or speaking some other language, active in a church or synagogue or mosque or not active in any religious community. The Westfield Public Library belonged to everyone. They all paid for it with their taxes. They all owned it. They all treasured it as part of their community.

But somehow the library had changed. The books that caused controversy at the school invariably found their way into the library’s collection. Not only were those books present: they were proudly displayed alongside other “banned books” from the past, including Slaughterhouse Five and Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. To Jasper, and to many other people in Westfield, the objections were not the same. Those earlier books had contained controversial material, things that might require some discussion in the classroom or around the family table. Objections to the current crop of books were far stronger. Those books were, in some cases, pornographic in their content. They described and encouraged behavior that ought not even be mentioned in a classroom or a family setting. They were being given to children of an age that, Jasper felt, were not ready to be exposed to such discussions. Under the guise of “tolerance” and “acceptance,” children were being exposed to adult topics, and even to topics that adults found best kept quiet and unmentioned.

Not all the concerns related to sexual matters. Controversies arose over history classes and their teaching materials. Some of the teachers wanted to use only classroom material that was critical of the United States and its history. They wanted to talk about everything wrong in America without ever mentioning anything right in America. They found fault with all the heroes Jasper had been taught to admire: Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, even George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington. They insisted that the history of the United States consisted largely of racism and oppression. Jasper had learned, in his school days, about slavery and the Civil War. He had been taught to respect people of all races and cultures. His history classes had spoken of the Civil Rights movement, of its successes and of its goals still unmet. But Jasper had also learned to love America. He had learned to celebrate its freedom and its goal of “liberty and justice for all.“ He knew that the United States is imperfect, but he also believed that the best way to make the country better was to start with what it was doing right and to continue improving from that set of achievements rather than tearing the entire system to the ground and expecting to build something new and better.

Once again, the battle had been fought through the school board. Jasper had remained on the sideline. The Westfield Public Library at first seemed equally uninvolved, but Jasper came to see that it was very much involved. Its new materials and its displays paid far more attention to the Black Lives Matter movement than it ever acknowledged the Tea Party movement. It said far more about “critical race theory” than about positive achievements in American history. It marked the 500th anniversary of black slaves arriving in Virginia but ignored the 500th anniversary of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. Its programs for children and for adults were increasingly focused on national problems and on the concerns of minority groups; very little attention was given to events and facts that inspired pride in the United States or thankfulness for the benefits and blessings that come with being an American citizen.

Jasper mentioned these concerns to his good friend Gus Michaels. Gus responded, “I’ve noticed exactly what you’re saying. The library used to be a sanctuary, a storehouse of human wisdom, a second home where everyone in town was welcome. But it’s not like that anymore. They are calling ‘science’ things that aren’t scientific at all. They’re cooperating with the liberals in government and mass media to keep fear and hysteria boiling all the time. They’ve become part of the conspiracy to keep us under control, to entertain us and distract us while they steal our country away from us.” Gus and Jasper spoke with other friends, with Leigh James and with Jane Thomas. Leigh and James agreed with Gus and Jasper. Even though the four of them supported the library by paying their property taxes, they no longer felt that Westfield Public Library belonged to them at all.

Leigh and Jane and Gus said that they would gladly start a campaign to defund the library. “The liberals want to defund the police,” Jane said, “but if we want to make America—and Westfield—great, we need to start with the library.” But Jasper disagreed. “Defunding the library cannot be our first step,” he told his friends. “They’ll get the votes to keep their money, and they’ll make us look foolish in the process. Even if we did manage to reduce their funding, they’d fight back by cutting the services that everyone wants while holding on to the things we’re trying to discard. That’s how government agencies always play the political game.”

Jasper took a deep breath and continued, “First, we need to provide an option to the Public Library. We need a place in Westfield that does everything the library used to do, but without all the things that the library shouldn’t be doing. Once we’ve established a Free Library, once we’ve developed a viable option to the Public Library, then we can run a campaign to defund the Public Library. But we need to take one step at a time.” Jasper stopped there. He didn’t add the third step he had in mind. First, they needed to create a Free Library. Second, they needed to defund the Public Library. Third, they owed it to the rest of the country to share their success, to transplant their idea of a Free Library into other communities. Westfield could be the beginning of something great. It could be the incubator of a movement that would restore authentic library services in towns and neighborhoods across the United States of America, “from sea to shining sea.”

Conditions were favorable in Westfield. The Baptist Church had just built a new worship center for their growing congregation; they had no plans for the old church building. The pastor was pleased to sponsor Jasper’s suggestion to the congregation that the building become home to a Free Library, one which would serve the Baptists (and their literary and cultural interests) far more faithfully than Westfield Public Library.

But having a building was just a start. Jasper and his friends needed to organize. He and Gus and Jane and Leigh created a Free Library board, with Jasper as President and Gus as Treasurer. Then they began seeking donations. They needed books and other reading material, especially children’s books. They needed bookshelves and other library furniture. They needed volunteers—librarians to check out the books and reshelve the books and maintain the books, but also workers to maintain the building and grounds, to keep the Free Library clean and welcoming, and to provide security for the new establishment. Jasper and his friends knew there would be problems. Unruly people would arrive, merely because every town has a few troublemakers among its residents. At some point, supporters of the Public Library might also create a scene, anticipating the challenge from this new institution and understanding that might threaten their own standing and financial support in Westfield.

The Free Library was not going to ask for any money from the town government or from any other level of government. They would need contributions. They would need to pay for utilities, for Internet access, and for other supplies to keep them in business. They would not need all the bells and whistles of the public library. They did not need scanners to check books in and out, nor did they need a fancy theft-prevention system. They could keep paper records the old-fashioned way; they could give numbered library cards to every patron and so keep track of who had which book at which time. One volunteer could create a digital book catalog for the Free Library and attach it to the library’s web site. This way people at home, even from out of town, could see what the library had and decide if they wanted to drop by and check out a book or two.

They would not be able to stock copies of the latest best-sellers or promise as comprehensive a collection as the Public Library boasted. But, relying on contributions, they could fill their space with interesting titles with very little effort. Books were always being discarded, being given away, being offered in bulk at estate sales. Children outgrew their books; adults lost interest in one hobby and moved on to another. The Free Library would not spend money on access to digital books and magazines—people who could afford devices that read those materials could also afford to receive those materials. But the Free Library would have a few computer terminals with public access, Internet service, and perhaps occasional guidance for computer users. Over time, their volunteer librarians would gain the ability to help those who came into the library needing special help: writing a resume and applying for jobs, or seeking online information for various reasons, or researching their family history and genealogy.

Of course, the Free Library would need rules. They would block inappropriate websites from access on computer libraries. They would refuse donation of materials that violated community standards. When donors or patrons objected to restrictions upon certain materials, the library board and staff could meet with the offended individuals and could even open such meetings to community participation. While insisting upon courtesy and respect in their gatherings, they could make room for members of the community to explain why they felt certain materials should be available in the library. And, if needed, the Free Library could maintain a section of restricted materials, available to some citizens upon request but not put out in the open for all visitors to see and peruse.

Like the Public Library, the Free Library would host (and, in many cases, develop) programs for children and for adults. Children’s programs would, in many cases, involve little more than the public reading of a book, perhaps with associated craft projects for the younger children. Discussion of the story might take place with some older children. The Free Library would aim to attract children particularly during the summer and holiday periods when school was not in session. Adult programs might involve anything from Reading Clubs to public lectures, bringing local and outside speakers to speak on their area of expertise. Some adult programs might also involve activities including crafts (such as quilting or fly tying), exercise, or training in computer skills. As with books, any program that generated controversy would be discussed with the library board; such discussion could lead to an open meeting for the community to address the controversy.

With a Free Library open and operating successfully, Jasper and his friends were ready to challenge the Public Library. They were ready to tell the voters of Westfield why they felt that the Public Library was not serving the community properly, why the Public Library was not acting as a good steward of the town’s tax money and public property. They would not move to defund the Public Library all at once; they would suggest a decrease in millage on the grounds that the public interest and the needs of the citizens were neglected. For a while—perhaps for many years—the two libraries would compete. Maybe the Public Library would always exist, in some form, to serve those citizens who approved what it was doing. Maybe the Public Library would collapse, or maybe it would find a way to merge with the Free Library, meshing their property and their budgets but continuing to respect the community values upheld by the Free Library. Jasper could not see the future, nor did he need to see it. He was confident that the Free Library was doing the right thing. Its current success was all the reward he needed at this time.

But one change in one town was not the limit of Jasper’s vision. He saw Free Libraries springing up in communities across the country. Some would be county-wide entities; some would serve a single town or village; some would serve single neighborhoods located in the larger cities of the country. Jasper, in his mind, set an arbitrary benchmark of ten thousand people. Where ten thousand people lived in the same general area—a county, a city, a neighborhood—they could find some available space to assemble a Free Library. As in Westfield, they would need donations: books, workers, and financial support. They would need to obey zoning ordinances and handicap-accessible requirements. They would face opposition, even rage, from some people who understood exactly what they were doing. They might be sued. Their property might be vandalized. The reputations of Free Library board members and staff workers might be dragged through the mud. But, given the opportunity to explain what they were doing and why, Jasper felt that Free Libraries would succeed and prosper in many areas. He hoped to network these Free Libraries, to encourage those getting started with success stories from those already operating, to offer advice about how to overcome various challenges, and to assure people across the nation that they were not alone, that they were part of a movement that was gathering steam, that was growing in power, that was respected because it built on the energy and inspiration that had already made America great.

In some locations, the Public Library might already be operating under the standards followed by the Free Libraries. In those cases, Jasper saw no reason those libraries could not be added to the Free Library Network. Free Libraries in other parts of the country might have things they could learn from such Public Libraries, and those Public Libraries might also pick up valuable tips from people involved in the Free Library movement.

Defund the Library? In a way, that is exactly what Jasper and his friends had set out to do. But instead of destroying the public library and leaving nothing to fill the empty space, Jasper Stevens and the Free Library movement, beginning in Westfield, were united in a patriotic endeavor that is part of the genuine American experience.


A little story from the past

Sometimes at work I help people learn more about their families. Many of the people who come into our part of the library are interested in genealogy. Some are getting started on the hobby; others are experienced researchers hoping to find some new information in our collections.

Sometimes I work with donated papers that give the history of various families. Someone did a lot of genealogy in the past. Now that they are gone, their children are not sure what to do with all their papers and photographs, and they offer them to the library. We accept these donations. They may be useful to people in the future who are doing genealogy—perhaps even the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of those who did all the work in the first place. They may also offer information to historians looking for details about the lives of people from the past, the kind of details that aren’t generally included in standard histories of those times.

Working with papers donated by one family, I came across the kind of minor story that depicts life from an earlier time. A certain woman was born in Ohio in 1821. When she was sixteen, she got married. Her husband died a few months later. Before he died, he promised his only suit of clothes to his best friend, provided that the friend would take care of this woman and of the child she was carrying. The child, a son, was born in March 1838. The next year, this woman married the friend who had promised to take care of her and her son. Her family biographer concludes, “She always felt sorry that she had to bury” her first husband “in his work clothes.”

When I talk about wealth, I mention having enough food to eat two or more meals a day. I talk about climate-controlled houses with hot and cold running water and indoor flush toilets. I talk about owning more clothes than you can wear at one time. This man had wealth—he had a suit to wear on special occasions, as well as his work clothes. He promised away that wealth for the good of his wife and his unborn child. His widow was embarrassed that he had to be buried in his work clothes.

Have you any complaints about your wardrobe today? J.

Pen pictures and qwerty keyboards

I was sitting at the reference desk one day last week when a man—one of our regular patrons—approached the desk and asked if I knew what a “pen picture” is. He had seen the phrase in two unrelated places recently and was confused about the meaning of the term. He had googled the term for a definition, and he got the result: “Archaic (19th century): 1. A drawing done in pen; 2: a written account that creates a mental image.” He was not sure how that applied to the two cases he had seen labeled pen pictures, as one of them was a poem, and the other was a recollection of past events.

I helped him to understand how both the poem and the recollection fit the second definition of “a written account that creates a mental image.” We also agreed that the phrase “pen picture” no longer applies, since written documents in the 21st century are created at keyboards. The conversation brought back memories of the way I used to write as compared to the way I write today.

When I was in high school and college, I would always write a first draft of a paper for school—or of a story—in pen. I would note all my corrections and additions, and then I would type the final draft with an electric typewriter. Even when I got my first desktop computer, I continued to handwrite the first drafts of my work. Only after several years of using a computer did I begin drafting my first drafts at the keyboard, editing them while I wrote them, and then printing a final copy on paper. Of course now I often publish my writing electronically and never have a paper copy of what I have written.

Paper can be destroyed quickly in a fire or a storm. Paper can disintegrate or fade slowly because of light, heat, humidity, mold, insects, rodents, and other hazards. Electronic records are also subject to loss. Computers crash. Storage devices fail. Technology changes, making older storage devices unusable. Even “the Cloud” can lose electronic documents and pictures. The best policy for preserving an electronic file is to save it three different places. Some writers email copies of their work to themselves as back-up copies.

In many cases, when a researcher visits a research library to view a digitally-created document—a string of emails, for example—the library staff prints the document on paper for the researcher. When the researcher is done with the document, the library staff saves the paper copy in case another researcher wants to see the same document later; they will not have to go through the trouble of finding and printing a second copy for the second researcher. The digital age was expected to reduce our reliance on paper, but often paper is still the best way to observe and preserve a digitally-created document or picture.

“Pen picture” may be an archaic term that has fallen out of use, but bloggers and other writers today continue to produce pen pictures of sorts. We still “dial” our cellular phones and still type with “Qwerty” keyboards that were designed to reduce the jamming of typewriter keys. Our digital pen pictures continue to produce mental images in the minds of others. As much as our technology changes, people are still people; we don’t change all that much from generation to generation. J.

Painting books

The most important words in my job description are “and other duties as required.” Those other duties have included setting up chairs, putting away chairs, building shelves, selling popcorn and candy bars and beer, and moving ten tons of paper in one day. My latest accomplishment, though, has taken me by surprise. My boss has me down in the basement painting books.

It’s not exactly painting that I’m doing; it’s more sealing the covers of books. These are large ledger books with red leather covers. Some of them are more than one hundred years old. Even under the best conditions, leather deteriorates over time. A product is made that, although it cannot reverse the deterioration that has already happened, it can cover up the leather and prevent further deterioration.

The mixture of chemicals I’m using has the viscosity of egg white, and it smells like a doctor’s office. The smell is caused by isopropyl alcohol, the chemical that evaporates to leave the surface sealed. I’m using sponge brushes with wooden handles to apply this stuff to the book covers. Hence, I tell people that this week I am painting books.

When my boss assigned me this task, he told me that I would be working in the basement so that the smell would not bother my co-workers. He also suggested I not do this task for too long at one time. “I don’t want to find you passed out on the floor down here,” he said. So I am taking the job about eight books at a time, then letting them dry and doing other things before I return for the next eight books.

They are huge and heavy ledger books. My boss didn’t give me detailed instructions on how to do this job, but I’ve painted houses before, and I’ve sealed wood on a deck. I was sure I could figure out a successful procedure. I pick up each book, make a note of what it contains (because at the end I’ll need a list of all the books in the set), and brush the cover lightly with a cleaning brush to remove any dust or other particles. Then I lay the book on a table and paint the front cover. I then slide my hand under the book and turn it so I can paint the spine. Then I lay the book down again and start the next book. After about three books, the cover of the first book is dry, so I can flip it on its front cover and paint the back.

I haven’t mentioned this to my boss, but last month I hurt my arm moving furniture at home. Now I’ve got a steady ache around my elbow that sometimes twinges when I reach for something (like a door) or when I grasp something (like a ledger book). The pain is survivable, but I doubt I’m doing whatever muscle or ligament is stressed by carrying heavy books and painting them.

Aside from that, the work is quite pleasant. The basement is quiet and still. The books look beautiful when they get their wet cover of sealant. Of course the sealant is clear when it dries, so the old scars and stains reappear. Even so, the sealed books have a greater vibrancy of red with gold trim than those books I have not yet sealed.

Today they tested the fire alarm at work. Of course they sent an email out first, telling employees we would not need to evacuate the building. Of course I was in the basement painting books and didn’t get the email. The first time the alarm sounded, I thought for a second about whether or not I should leave, decided to leave, screwed the cover on the sealant container, and headed for the door. I had just gone up the stairs and reached the door to the parking lot when the alarm stopped. I didn’t see other employees standing outside, so I figured it was safe to get back to work. The second time the alarm sounded I thought for a few seconds, decided it was smarter to leave, and was halfway across the basement when the alarm stopped. After that, the other tests were so brief that I didn’t even have time to think about leaving before I knew I didn’t need to leave.

By the end of the week I should have all the books painted, and I should have the list of books ready so other people know where to find these books. I’m curious about what other new and unique opportunities I’ll have at this job the rest of the month.


Ten tons of paper

One day last month I moved ten tons of paper. I didn’t move it all at the same time, of course, or all at once. The paper was in boxes, lots of boxes, averaging forty pounds a box. Some weighed less than forty pounds, but a lot of them weighed more. It took three of us about six hours to finish the project, but I know that during these six hours I moved at least five hundred boxes.

I work at a library. One department of the library is an archive. Individuals, families, businesses, and other organizations donate their papers to the library so other people can study those papers and learn about those people and organizations and their contributions to the history of our city. After the papers have been donated, a team of archivists prepares them for researchers. The archivists go through the papers, removing rusty staples and paper clips, hardened rubber bands, and other harmful items. Next they organize the paper to help the researchers, although they try to maintain the original order whenever possible, since the order of the papers is part of their story. Finally, the archivists write a description, or index, of the papers, which they call a Finding Aid. This description tells researchers what the library has and where they can find these papers.

The library is running short of storage space. To use space more efficiently, the library’s directors bought shelves that move along a track. These movable shelves can contain more boxes than regular shelves, since there is only one aisle for the whole set of shelves, but the shelves can be moved left or right along the track, making every box accessible (but not all of them at the same time). To use these shelves, though, the library’s workers first had to empty the old shelves, dismantle and remove them, install the new shelves, and then put the boxes on the new shelves. That is what I did last month—moved ten tons of paper in boxes onto their new, space-efficient shelves.

Some reader is saying right now, “Hey, J., why doesn’t your library join the twenty-first century? You could save a lot of time and a lot of space if you would just digitize all those papers instead of storing them and organizing them and describing them. You could load the digital copies into the Cloud and send the paper out to be recycled.” Well, I’m sorry, dear reader, but it is not as easy as you think. I can give you three very good reasons why your up-to-the-minute proposal doesn’t work.

First, do you have any idea how many pages are contained in ten tons of paper? Can you imagine how many hours of labor it would take to run each one of those pages through a scanner? And even if the library wanted to spend money to digitize every sheet of paper, what kind of server do you think could handle all those scans and make them available to the public?

Second, even if they did digitize all those pages and publish them online somewhere, how would researchers know what was in those pages? They still need to be organized and described to be useful to anyone. As a book needs a table of contents and an index, so a collection of historic papers—including ledger books, maps, photographs, and all kinds of other stuff—needs a finding aid to make research possible.

Third, digital technology itself can fail. Computers crash, files become corrupted, and technology always changes. If the only copy of some important document is digital, sooner or later it will disappear. How many of us have lost priceless (to ourselves) stories and essays and photographs because we trusted a computer to save it for us? The library’s staff of archivists will digitize the papers and photographs of greatest value to researchers, and they will make them available online; but to be safe, they still will not discard the originals. Most of the tons of paper will not be digitized. It will be cleaned and arranged and described.

The library directors are wise to accept these gifts of paper, to pay archivists to organize and describe these gifts, and to keep these gifts carefully in storage for researchers today and for researchers of generations yet to come. I am glad that I, in one small way last month, was allowed to contribute to the preservation of history.