Thinking Deep Thoughts About the Library

by Bill Peak (Published in The Star Democrat 12.1.08)

I'm writing this while on vacation in Chincoteague. For me, one of the nicest things about a vacation is the opportunity it gives you ... however briefly ... to step out of the rat race, slow down a bit, take things more or less as they come. Sometimes, if I'm very lucky, I begin to feel as if I've slowed so much I've actually begun to catch up with the present moment. I know that sounds contradictory, but think about it. In our regular, work-a-day lives, most of us spend most of our time hurrying to keep pace with the future; we plan events, anticipate outcomes, set agendas, do anything and everything but pay attention to the moment we're actually living through (the one we all know—in our heart of hearts—will never come again). But thankfully, on vacation, the race to get ahead, perform, is put magically on hold, the pressure let out of our systems. One finds oneself catching the scent of brine upon the breeze, noticing the way the marsh grasses change color as the sun sets, thinking about life, thinking about the meaning of life.

And of course, if you're very lucky, you get to go fishing.

Now fishing, by its very nature, is a contemplative practice. You sit on the dock, trying to imagine through the tension on your line, the action at the tip of your pole, what's going on beneath the great reflective surface before you, and, naturally enough (your mind trying to picture something it cannot see), thoughts tend to drift away from you, float off on currents of their own.

I, for instance, the other day, found myself thinking about the library, the place I work. What, I wondered (in the time-honored tradition of deep-thinking fisherman), what exactly is “a library?”

Well, the traditional response to that question goes something like this ... “A library is evidence of people's hunger for knowledge—a story they've never heard before, an idea they'd never thought of, a love they'd never imagined. Libraries are proof of the mind's endless salutary thirst for wisdom.” But jigging my plug across Assateague Channel, thinking about the precious lode of books I'd brought from the library to this spit of land out on the edge of the Atlantic (a couple of beach books, Martha Hode's “The Sea Captain's Wife,” and, for my soul, a little Thomas Merton), I began to think there might be more to a library than just the usual librarian hype.

I mean think about it, here's this building housing a fair sampling of all the knowledge the human race has managed to accumulate during its brief time on earth, all of it purchased and cared for out of communal funds, and instead of offering it to the highest bidder or holding it in reserve for the exclusive use of some privileged ruling class, we make it available to every man, woman, and child in the community regardless of station or worth. And it's truly communal. We don't lend the books out at an exorbitant rate, we lend them free of charge. We share the books. We trust one another to take the materials home, to not abuse them, and then to return them at a pre-arranged time so others might use them, without ever making any claim to ownership. And it works, has been working now for a very long time indeed. Most of us willingly participate in this radical, socialist, altruistic, early Christian Church way of doing things without ever giving it a second thought. We take it for granted.

Sitting there on the dock, humming the inevitable Otis Redding tune, I came to the conclusion that a library—in some ways better than anything else— symbolizes what a community is, what it thinks of itself and its people. Needless to say, this is not true of all municipal undertakings. We do not create traffic courts or detention centers because we think our people capable of great things. But that is exactly why we create libraries. The Talbot County Free Library stands as proof that the people of our community believe our children, our friends, our neighbors, given the right tools, can, and very well may, achieve anything.

So, a final deep thought from that fellow sitting out there on the dock, wetting his line ... Maybe we should all, from time to time, turn to the person next to us and thank them for their generosity, thank them for the faith they've shown in us through the simple existence of their, of our, Talbot County Free Library.