Suzanne Tobias

Suzanne Perez Tobias: In age of high-tech, public library still a treasure

Call me crazy, old-fashioned or frugal, but I still love the public library.

I visit my branch at least a few times a month – sometimes to browse, sometimes just long enough to zip in, grab items off the hold shelf, check them out and get back to work.

When my kids were younger, we’d attend storytimes and special events and check out picture books by the boxful. We heard Jim Cosgrove sing “Stinky Feet” at least a half-dozen times. We still try to catch the Oscar-nominated short films every winter, when the library shows them back-to-back a few days before the Academy Awards.

Each time I pull that library card out of my wallet and trade it for the latest novel, cookbook or DVD, I whisper a little thank you to taxpayers (myself included) and remember the words of the late Walter Cronkite:

“Whatever the cost of our libraries,” he said, “the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.”

For nearly a decade, Wichita leaders have debated building a new central library at the corner of Second and McLean to replace the aging building near Century II. Last week the City Council voted to solicit proposals for architectural schematics, but told library boosters they’d need to find funding other than general obligation bonds to pay for the $29 million project.

That action prompted a renewed slew of letters to the editor and calls to Opinion Line. And while I recognize the merits of setting spending priorities and monitoring the city’s debt load, one particular comment made me wince:

“Close all libraries and stop building monuments to people. We can’t afford either,” the Opinion Line caller said. “Just Google it.”

Just Google it?

As much as I appreciate online search engines, social media and almost all manner of modern technology, I don’t think Google can replace libraries any more than robots can replace people.

I love libraries because they symbolize a community’s commitment to learning. They’re tranquil spaces. They encourage thinking, browsing, exploring, discovering.

Libraries are generous. Like the book? Take it. Keep it a while. Bring it back when you’re done. We trust you.

Libraries are evolving, adapting to today’s faster, busier culture. They offer e-books and computer time. If you still prefer old-fashioned hardcovers, search the online catalog to find and reserve a book. Pay a quarter and they’ll deliver it to the closest branch, send you a text when it’s ready to pick up.

Many times I’ve searched for a popular novel or movie and seen a long waiting list. No matter. I add my name and go on with my business, and weeks later when I get the text – “Star Wars Trilogy is ready for pickup at Ford Rockwell Branch Library …” – it’s like an unexpected gift, a $5 bill found in a coat pocket.

I love the serendipity of libraries, the joy of finding something amazing while you’re looking for something else. Bookstores have that too, of course. So does Amazon, which elbows you at every turn to say, “Hey, you liked that book? You might like this one, too,” or “Customers who bought that book also bought these other 10.”

Those customers have much bigger budgets than me. The library doesn’t care. The library says, “Come in. We’re open. No charge.”

Libraries aren’t free. Far from it. But neither are roads, bridges, parks and schools. Neither is clean air or water.

They’re a valuable part of any community, and we’d be wise to make sure they stick around.