Minnesotans love our libraries

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 13, 2011 - 11:25 AM

A new book from the Minnesota Historical Society Press explores Minnesotans' love of libraries, and how both readers and card catalogs keep evolving.

The root of the word "library" comes from the Latin liber, which is what Virgil and Ovid and the gang called tree bark. Peeled carefully from a trunk, bark proved a serviceable writing surface. So it's fitting that a library remains a building filled with parts of trees, now pulped and pressed.

No wonder that the libraries saluted in "Libraries of Minnesota" (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $24.95) appear to have literal roots that extend not only into the neat lots of Bayport and Warroad and St. Anthony, but into readers who, despite Kindle and Google and YouTube, use their library cards.

For their part, the librarians probably saw me as a shy kid who liked to read and preferred to be left to his own devices. ... They understand that sometimes the best to way attach a book to a boy is to leave him to find it on his own.

-- Pete Hautman

Hautman is one of seven Minnesota writers who reflect on libraries' place in their lives. He and Nancy Carlson, Will Weaver, Kao Kalia Yang, David LaRochelle, John Coy and Marsha Wilson Chall write with what can only be called a sense of yearning. As writers of books for children and young adults, the focus on their own early experiences makes sense. But they also know that the reading rooms of their youth, with their shushing librarians, are evolving.

Major changes are occurring in the ways we read, the ways we tell stories, and the ways we gather information. I believe that public libraries are more important now than ever. ... They provide a public symbol of the equal opportunity we espouse.

-- John Coy

In Newport Beach, Calif., the city is considering a bookless library. The idea is to replace the current library with a community center that has a kiosk with video-calling software through which you could order a book, which would be dropped off at a locker.

In San Antonio, the University of Texas' new engineering and technology library contains little that resembles dead trees. Instead, there is access to 425,000 e-books and 18,000 e-journal subscriptions.

Perhaps because of the persistent image of the shushing librarian, libraries seem to struggle with tooting their own horns, which hasn't helped their case when it comes to the challenges of funding. It comes as a small shock to learn that in the heyday of the Roman Empire, each emperor strove to open many public libraries in an attempt to outdo his predecessor.

But sometimes my library ears cannot tune out the words on the page talking inside my head, and sometimes I am sure I hear the words read in other people's heads.

-- Marsha Wilson Chall

Finland has the highest number of registered book borrowers per capita in the world, with more than half its population possessing a library card.

A federal study of U.S. book circulation found that a typical public library user in the years between 1856 and 1978 borrowed about 15 books per year. There was a brief spurt during the run-up to World War II when Americans saw newsreel footage of Nazi soldiers burning books. According to an article in History magazine, they embraced libraries, figuring that "if the fascists were against them, there must be something good about them."

From 1978 to 2004, book circulation per user declined by half, supplanted by an increase in people checking out films and videos.

Sometimes the older girl read to the younger one and their baby brother and sisters. ... the way she turned the pages of a book while holding it up so the pictures could be shared was ever so gentle. The dry pages rustled only a little, a tiny window opened with each flip of a page, and a whole world unfolded.

-- Kao Kalia Yang

For all of its words, "Libraries of Minnesota" essentially is a photo book, the latest in photographer Doug Ohman's series of books funded through the Legacy Amendment that dedicates part of the state's sales tax to improving the environment and the culture. His photos of almost 70 libraries range from one reclaimed from an old liquor store to elegant Carnegie castles to modern glass-walled, high-tech resource centers.

If you look closely at the southwest corner of each building, squinting a bit, you can almost see the knob of a tree root, anchoring this storehouse of Seuss and Shakespeare to its neighborhood.

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

  • related content

  • Glenwood Public Library

  • BOOK LAUNCH PARTY

    When: 7 p.m. April 21.

    Where: Pohlad Hall, Minneapolis Central Library, 300 Nicollet Mall.

    What: Doug Ohman will show slides from "Libraries of Minnesota," and contributing authors Pete Hautman, David LaRochelle, Will Weaver, John Coy, Marsha Wilson Chall and Kao Kalia Yang will tell stories about their childhood libraries. Books will be available for purchase and signing.

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