"The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, and all the sweet serenity of books ... ."
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
As controversies from the annals of Columbia County go, you might not think the now three-year-old and very popular reading, learning and entertainment center just behind the also-new Justice Center could possibly have been on that list.
When compared to the railroad, the canal or even the Savannah Rapids Pavilion, not very many folks were against building a new, state-of-the-art library when the 1999 1-cent sales tax referendum came up for a vote, but there were a few.
And what was the chief objection? With the rise of the Internet and its presumed endless supply of information, they said, who needs books? Specifically, why spend so much money on a place just to store books when our dependence on the printed page is on the way out?
The Internet replace the library? Let me discount the ways.
• First, forget the "image" thing, that the people of Columbia County only wanted the best, or that government leaders were just trying to build a fancy centerpiece for the new Evans Town Center. Instead of image, the key words for not confusing a new library with wasted money are "access" and "everyone."
Some might think the flow of information through the Internet is infinite and universal, but it's not. Power outages and crashing computers happen all the time, and there will never be a day in Columbia County or anywhere else when everyone owns a PC. Public libraries will always be one of the best and most accessible sources of information around.
• "I just got this over the Internet," the caller says, "but how do I know it's authentic?"
You don't. The Internet is a wonderful invention, but it's far from foolproof. For example, of all the problems connected with my research into Columbia County history, none has been more difficult than trying to "prove" what I'm uncovering is true.
Why? Because, like my Internet e-mails, so much of what has been written or handed down by oral tradition is unsourced. So, I find my "sequestered nook" in the library, gather an armload of books, and keep cross-referencing until I'm satisfied each detail is correct.
• Which brings up a related point: Just as calculators dull our mathematical senses, the Internet lures us into believing whatever it tells us is true. Thus, to save time or effort, we become lazy thinkers, content to pass along information we have not bothered to check out. Think of the effect this practice could have in the area of historical records alone. Does the term "no controlling information authority" ring a bell?
• Another reason not to depend totally on the Internet for information is the danger of learning in isolation. Pick any subject to research on the web and you are shown a huge number of "matching sites/categories."
For instance, when I clicked on "Benjamin Franklin," founder of the first public library in America, I had 892 sites to choose from. Perhaps, if I'm not fussy, one or two sources will do, but if I were in the library, not only would I have a group of reference books - with sources of their own - but I would have a librarian to point me toward the specific information I need. If learning could be accomplished alone, we would not need schools.
• Finally, the most important reason I can think of for building more libraries is to foster the sheer enjoyment of reading. No matter how many videos and computer games their creators turn out, the recent hype over the new Harry Potter and Twilight books is a thrilling indication that reading for fun is not a dead art after all. In fact, since 1997, the sale of children's books in this country has risen 11 percent.
And with the availability of unwholesome reading on the Internet, parents should be overjoyed when they hear their child say, "I think I'll read a book."
See you at the library.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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