Volume 28, Number 4, Winter 2006

Open Doors

By Marilyn Irwin, Indiana University School of Library and Information Science and President of ASCLA

The library as place has been a topic of discussion at recent library conferences, and many outside the field question why there is still a need for bricks and mortar in this age of the Internet. What they often don’t see is that libraries are a safe haven for America’s citizens, and that there are different outcomes for different people. Many adults who cannot read have hidden that problem for years, often with feelings of shame and regret. The library provides an ideal environment to learn how to decode letters because no one would suspect that anyone entering the library would have difficulties with the written word.

People with disabilities want to feel like everyone else, including having the opportunity to read the most popular books and see and hear the latest movies even when there are visual or auditory impairments. With the use of the library’s assistive devices -- recorded and large print books, and captioned and described videos -- people with disabilities can find their place in the community.

I live in a relatively small town where I often discover how much everyone knows everyone else’s business. I recently passed one of the local churches with a sign out front announcing a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program that meets every Tuesday night. In my small town, I can imagine the busy bodies who feel it is their business to check out the cars in the parking lot on Tuesday evenings to find out who needs these services. But who questions cars parked in the library lot? Library meeting rooms provide an environment where people can come together with fewer prying eyes.

Many in our communities need confidential information, and we assure privacy. For those who are in a state of homelessness, we offer shelter from the elements, and the list of individuals who need our bricks and mortar goes on.

Whenever I question my profession, I pull off my shelf Michael Gorman’s book, Our Enduring Values: Librarianship in the 21st Century (ALA, 2000). I can open it to just about any page and feel reassured that what we do is good, but that we must be vigilant to ensure that it endures. Gorman dedicates one chapter of the book to the topic “The Library as Place”. In this chapter, he addresses the need for a physical library for functions such as housing the materials, providing access to computers, and offering instruction; however, he also sees the library as a near-holy place. He implores us to see a library as “a place that inspires respect and encourages the pursuit of truth by scholars and children, by the high and the low, by the powerful and the powerless –- because all these people come to the library with common aims and shared dreams” (p. 56). The bricks and mortar hold the open doors to our citizens. So to those who question it, yes, there is a need for a physical building. It reinforces our enduring values.