Imagine that, for $31 a year, you could buy a membership that gave you access to all human knowledge, written or recorded. Story books for your children, story-telling presentations. Car manuals for your grease monkey. Tunes for your teenager. Cookbooks for your chef, movies for Saturday night, novels for the beach, how-to videos for your gardening, poems for quiet reflection. What a bargain, eh?
You can. $31 is the cost, per person, for America's public libraries, according to the American Library Association. For this small tax burden, Americans checked out over two billion items from public libraries last year, including an average of seven books as well as DVDs, tapes, and CDs.
Libraries have also become the de facto internet access point for those without a computer. In my hometown, the banks of PCs are routinely overbooked with retirees and immigrants staying in touch with loved ones. Many libraries also serve as a neighborhood gathering place for those between jobs, retired, or working from home. During a recent extended power outage, my local library also became the source of local information, electricity for recharging cell phones and laptops, and a place to congregate and share war stories.
For my money, there is no institution that better illustrates democracy than the library. Our conviction that improving one person makes us all better, that knowledge shared will be returned in kind, that feeding the brain is as important as feeding the body, that a strong nation depends on a educated electorate, that the right to information guaranteed by the first amendment needs a vehicle for its delivery, is all manifest in the nation's library system. It is, in my opinion, worth its weight in gold.