With their coffee and pastry offerings, and complimentary Wi-Fi, today's newfangled bookstores don't impress me. Their inventories are often too thin for my tastes, full mostly of bestselling works in popular genres that are cookie-cutter commentaries on life. No, I am a diehard supporter of libraries, with an understandable bias towards those of the theological sort found at seminaries or theological and divinity schools. With my cell phone on silent/vibrate, and a pen and notepad in hand, I enter the sacred literary space with excitement about what newness might be unearthed on any given expedition.
Maybe it certifies me as an old fogey even at 33, but I actually enjoy the Dewey Decimal System, and the associated process of flipping through books with your hands to see if the title you seek is or is not in the right place, which then informs your next step. There is something therapeutic and educational about that, and it regularly reintroduces me to the virtue and life skill called patience. I order books online for sure, but I am not one for reading them there. At least not yet; I can't bring myself to partake of electronic reading devices. It feels like a betrayal somehow, although I can't say specifically of what or whom. I do know, though, that the tactile sensibilities of my old soul, born of another generation, aren't overly impressed with the accessibility. I don't need access to hundreds of book at all times via my cell phone or tablet. Since I can only juggle reading a few books at one time anyway that seems like a waste of otherwise good technology and time, simply adding yet another device to lug around and strive to keep charged. I do employ audiobooks occasionally, but almost exclusively to break up the monotony of long road trips.
Beginning with that of my public and elementary school while growing up, libraries have continued to play a formative role in my personal and professional maturation. As a kid, I remember sitting in the corner of the local library catching up on issues of Sports Illustrated for Kids during lapses in my subscription. When friends weren't abundant (and they never have been) books provided an intelligent but shy kid like me an avenue for refuge and rejuvenation, much of which took place in libraries. While engaged in sermon preparation and research for articles recently, in a seminary library I overheard that they house over 225,000 books. While that pales in comparison to the level of instant data that can be accessed through a few keystrokes on the information superhighway, being able to locate, digest, and then critically analyze all of that, I fear is rapidly becoming something that a number of young people haven't been trained to do. It isn't a value or competency of theirs, and oftentimes not even of their parents.
I am far from a "professional researcher," who makes a living by researching things. However, given my line of work, I am of the strong opinion that to be impactful partly requires the patient persistence and the creative know-how to locate reputable information. And while I thoroughly appreciate the countless benefits the Internet and other associated technologies bring to that equation, the exploratory touch and feel, the tangible hypothesizing qualities of libraries simply can't be ignored. The Internet is a wonderful tool, but how we use it sometimes promotes the very opposite of skills and values that we desperately need to reclaim and reteach both to ourselves and others.
That brings me to my concluding reflection on libraries: librarians. For so long I have heard them described as aloof, odd, antisocial wall flowers, recluses even, who can relate better to inanimate objects (books) than people. Admittedly, I am biased, but to me librarians are very special people. You might call them unofficial gatekeepers of information. As with any profession, though, there are the bad apples, I suppose, and then, again like any other profession, there are those who simply have bad days. But, all in all, I have found librarians to be highly knowledgeable in their field and painstakingly dedicated to helping ignite and encourage love of information in others. And seemingly none of this is done in the spirit of acquiring information for information's sake to store in a safe somewhere that does no one or only a select few any good. Rather, I see librarians as conduits for individual and corporate transformation in our world. Nevertheless, at times they are treated as inept, second-class educators of some sort, which is unfair and unfortunate.
Librarians field all manner of silly and complicated inquiries with grace, humor, and an essential wonder that ought to be commended, not made fun of. Perhaps we speak an unspoken shuush'd language of lifelong literary lovers, undecipherable by those tickled by every generation's passing fancies, but librarians have always been helpful to me. Knowledgeable, passionate, and patient, they are some of my favorite people wherever I find them. I hope that the Internet never fully replaces libraries. Bible commentaries, encyclopedias, and databases of other resources being made available online is appropriate, but for me they will never replace my old-school need for face to face, or fingers to page interaction with literature.
I hope that somehow, someway for the next generation libraries can become more than a warehouse designated for study with friends, typing away vociferously on laptops in between social media chats and text messages. I hope that for them it will be what it was and still is for me, a creative safe-haven for a bit of respite, reflection, and renewal from the pressures of our all-consuming world, even while we diligently ponder the appropriate convergence of information and action, wisdom and responsibility, inspiration and insight. To take a phrase from Lorraine Hansberry's award-winning play A Raisin in the Sun, I am grateful that in libraries I find solace and space to "sit awhile and think."