A library, a library, my kingdom for a library! (Sorry, Mr. Shakespeare, I'm obviously paraphrasing.)
The whole notion of a library is so civilized when you think of it. One of history's seminal events, after all, was the burning of the library of Alexandria. The concept of a library, however, was a remarkable one, and much like the concept of a museum in that it exists "pro bono publico", for the public good. Prior to the inception of a public library, rich folks used to have private book collections in their homes. If you weren't titled, privileged or well-born, you were out in the cold, and doomed to not know things like what color your parachute was, any of Aristotle's fables, or a step-by-step guide to repairing a broken axle on a chariot. While surely information could be acquired in other ways (listening to someone recounting one of Aristotle's fables, or watching a dude doing the axle repair on a chariot), a lot could be lost in translation. (I'm Irish and therefore a descendant of people who were forced to have an oral history. While my whole family is renowned to be a great bunch of talkers and we're said to tell a good tale, it isn't quite the same.) So, if the dude teaching you to repair the chariot axle explained too quickly and hadn't sketched a diagram, or if whoever was relating Aristotle put their own embellishment into his fable, you might not realize it at the time, but you were not in a good place of getting reliable info.
Wealthy families did the same with works of art. If your last name was Medici or Borgia, you were going to have access to fabulous sculptures and paintings in your home, but if you weren't a member of the ruling class, hard luck, no access. The Vatican Museum claims to be the largest and first formal museum in Europe. It's not free and is often crowded, but the money collected at the door goes to the upkeep and restoration of works of art that would otherwise not be available to public view.
On the reading front, enter the library! Home to all, friend to many, stranger to none! You read yesterday that my grade school library wasn't exactly the Taj Mahal. We were very excited as young students when the floor was carpeted and good overhead lighting finally appeared. The public library near my house was not particularly close by foot, but I could ride there on my bike in better weather. I attended a private high school for girls. It was large, but the sister in charge of it had a reputation for being a bit "eccentric". Certain books were banned from the library, as they were deemed "morally unfit" for our consumption, and one of my classmates was once asked to leave due to the fact she was studying from a textbook and "not making use of library resources"! (Lest you think I am a senior citizen, I am not.) I remember my junior year of high school taking an English class entitled "American Novel & Research Paper". While doing research for my thesis for that class, my father drove me downtown, to the Main Library in Detroit. I was enraptured by the majesty of the place! What hours of delight awaited me. It was here that my father revealed to me that his favorite author was James Hilton and his favorite book was "Lost Horizon".
Entering the University of Michigan, I thought I died and went to heaven. The Ann Arbor campus doesn't just have "a library". There is the UGLI (UnderGrad LIbrary), the "Grad", and a host of other libraries for students, faculty and staff to access. I loved studying in the Grad, with sparse carrels, and "the stacks", where, if not careful, you could actually get lost.
In my travels, I've been lucky enough to have spent a bit of time on days of inclement weather to have had the opportunity to explore libraries in Florence and Rome. In my mind's eye, I picture another century, and young students of all ilk combing the shelves of books for poetry, law, history, romance. This is as rich as any bit of history of a place, as valuable as any church or museum could possibly be to understanding another country and culture.
Currently I live in a little town in the midwest of the United States. Our library was temporarily housed in an office building, but moved into "new digs" a few years ago. It's a lovely building, with meeting rooms, and a grandfather clock on the main floor. There's a little ante-room off the main check-out where one can purchase used books. I love the fact I can be at home and reserve a book on the computer, and get an e-mail telling me that it's available for pick-up. Likewise I can check out a DVD of a film I hadn't seen in original release.
As our world is becoming a more digital one, there's talk that the libraries we've known won't be relevant any longer. The NY Times recently ran a story on that.
For my part, I hope libraries remain for a while as a place where both digital and print media can be accessed by all. And Dad...here's hoping we all find our Shangri-La.
1 day ago