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The Books Are Weeping

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It's every girl's fantasy to be locked in a shopping mall overnight, right?

Wrong.

When I was young, I fantasized about being accidentally locked inside the library after closing time. To have the entire library to myself for the night! To page through book after book after book after book until I was deliriously bleary eyed, without being shushed by the librarian or warned that On the Origin of Species might be beyond my reading level (it was--but who cares?).

My love of libraries goes back as far as I can remember. At four or five, I turned my bedroom into one. I created a card catalogue listing all my books and forced family members to check them out. When they forgot about the game, days later, I'd gleefully appear with an overdue notice and collect a nickel fine.

My first visit to a school library forever changed the way I think about books. After giving us a tour and describing the Dewey decimal system in terms kindergarteners could understand, the librarian told us that while some books were always in demand, others had never been checked out at all. She said that if you listened closely, you could actually hear these overlooked books crying.

What an impression that made on my wee soul! I'd crouch between aisles of books, straining to hear the weeping volumes. I never did hear a book cry, but for years afterward, whenever I'd pick up a library book, I'd flip straight to the back to see if there were any dates stamped on the card in the pocket. A pristine card meant the book had never been checked out. Discovering a virgin book was like befriending an unpopular kid at school. These literary good deeds expanded my world, exposing me to books beyond what all the other kids were reading.

Nowadays, most libraries have done away with the cards in favor of bar codes and scanners, so a book's lending history can only be guessed at by the degree to which the spine has been cracked and the pages dog-eared.

I still have the very first library card ever issued to me, from Ossining Public Library (originally named Sing Sing Public Library after the town's famous prison) in New York. My thrill at achieving this rite of passage was probably not eclipsed until I got my driver's license, if then. We moved a lot when I was a kid, and for each of the dozen or so towns I lived in before high school, I can still remember the layout of the local library--each children's section, magazine rack, reference desk, and drinking fountain.

All these memories came to mind this morning when I learned that my current local library, Covina Public Library, is in imminent danger of shutting down due to city budget cuts. According to a report in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Covina voters last year opted not to renew the city utility tax, which funds libraries, parks, and recreational facilities, among other services. Without the utility tax, keeping the library afloat would mean cutting money from other city departments, something Covina's mayor rules out. If the Covina Public Library closes, it would reportedly be the first time in California history that any city library would be forced to shut down.

Public libraries in general have faced tough times of late. I admit my own library usage has declined in the past decade. I buy more books than I borrow; and much of the research I used to do in the library can now be done online. But I count on the library to be available when my kids or I want to visit, and it's unthinkable to me that it could be gone by next summer. A local group, Community Matters, is working on a petition to get the utility tax back on the ballot, and my family and I will be among the first signers. If you live in Covina, I urge you to do the same.

Do you know the fiscal health of your public library? The next time you visit, listen closely. You may hear the books crying.

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