FIRST, THE GOOD NEWS. On the first page of Wayne A. Wiegand’s Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, a stunning statistic from the Pew Research Center’s 2013 Internet and American Life Project: 91 percent of respondents over the age of 16 said that public libraries were “very” or “somewhat” important to their communities; 98 percent identified their public library experience as “very” or “mostly” positive; and 94 percent of parents believed that libraries were important to their children. The report also grouped the library with the military and first responders as the only major institutions not to fall in public esteem over the previous decade.
It’s worth pausing for a second to ponder this baffling consensus. In the polarized and paranoid America of the 21st century — these days I picture Uncle Sam with one hand on his concealed weapon, his other hand on his wallet — it’s hard to imagine 90 percent of us agreeing on anything, much less coming together to support an open, tax-funded, socialistic institution devoted (at least traditionally) to the distribution of books.