Not too far from where I live, there is a particularly hateful group of people who preach a vicious, life-denying Christianity. You may know them as the Westboro Baptist Church, most often seen at funeral protests. They also protest area rock concerts and recently made an appearance at the church I attend. They are an embarrassment to the state of Kansas (not that we need another).
But two of their members recently escaped, due in part to the influence of the Lawrence Public Library! Megan Phelps-Roper spoke about leaving the church and shared how a visit to our library helped open up her eyes to the breadth of human thought and experience. Congratulations to Megan on leaving, and I hope she can find peace in a new life.
On reading this, I remembered with fondness the library in my hometown. Some wonderful librarian in my town purchased the community subscription to Ms. Magazine and the Utne Reader. After my introduction to feminism, these were the only pro-woman texts I saw for two years until my own escape to college. During near-daily trips to the library I would check for the new issues incessantly, and secretly, lest anyone see me reading them. I found my first Douglas Coupland books there, and my first Simon and Garfunkel album; they loaned me all of Madeline L'Engle's books, a great deal of science fiction, Holocaust memoirs, The Bell Jar, literary biographies--most of my literary loves came from that one big room filled with books.
The people running that library were hardly leftist or even liberal; they most likely did not agree with the sentiments of those publications. But they had a commitment to open access and knowledge that I respect deeply, and that commitment was rare in small-town Iowa. So the arson that destroyed my hometown library was particularly traumatic. Some local ruffians threw firecrackers in the book-return box and gutted the structure, taking most of the collection in the fire. These young people were caught and punished as little as possible, due to family connections and most probably the low regard those in power felt towards the library.
Later, the library was rebuilt, bigger and more beautiful than before. I never felt the same about the new structure, though; it lacked the central fireplace and cozy surreptitiousness of the former building. The old stacks allowed me to disappear into books; the new were too open, too revealing, too few places for young feminists to hide.
Anyway, if there is one thing that is truly great about America, it is our libraries. I am sure that there is inequality in them, also, in where they are and in how fines accrue and in which writers and artists are represented in the collections. Nonetheless, they are the most promising institution we have, a source of hope for a free and educated future. The public libraries helped me escape; they have given some of my students access to a larger vision; and they helped Megan Phelps-Roper see a new light. Congratulations to all who leave lives directed by hate for lives directed by love and reading. May love and reading bless all of you this year!