Libraries are far more than books

Take me to your reader 

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Libraries are more than books.

It seems like an odd thing to say, but we seem to forget that libraries are primarily gathering places. Libraries gather information and resources. Libraries gather individuals and organizations. And then they scatter them.

Resources, priorities and technologies shift constantly, but the mission stays essentially the same.

Here is the mission statement of the Tacoma Public Library from their Strategic Plan for 2018:

Enhance Tacoma’s diverse citizenry by providing access to ideas and perspectives from around the world and through innovative library services stimulate the development of literacy, knowledge, wisdom, critical thought, and valuable interaction that yields positive experiences and a thriving community

On one level, this is a generic statement that might suit any library in any community. Tacoma is certainly a demographically diverse place, ideas and perspectives from around the world, thanks to the internet, social media, the Port of Tacoma and JBLM impact us all directly or indirectly through our neighbors, our schools and our ever shifting economy.

“Innovative library services” cost money and these “services” are not always perceived as being equally distributed or accessible. Tacoma, like many urban communities, has “food deserts” – neighborhoods where basic groceries are not readily available. Tacoma, again perhaps like other cities, also has “library deserts” – neighborhoods where a local library is not immediately accessible and basic library services are not available. I’m guessing that these tend to be the same neighborhoods.

The “development of literacy, knowledge, wisdom, critical thought, and valuable interaction” is important, but so abstract that I have no idea what it really means. How would any of these be defined or measured?

How about “valuable interaction”? For whom and for how long? And at what cost? By what means?

A program that “yields positive experiences and a thriving community” would be any organization’s goal. Maybe even a family or individual goal. But what does it mean? Does a “positive experience” today  imply or guarantee a “positive experience” six months or a year from now?

Mowing one’s lawn might be a ”positive experience” for the individual or neighborhood involved, and it might be deeply appreciated, at least for a week or so, but a ”thriving community” emerges from a thousand small, barely noticeable acts that accumulate and form the texture and tone of a community.

A community library is a key player in all this – but certainly has no monopoly on any of it.

A library is one of those defining barometers of a community. The support and advocacy of, and on behalf of, a local library is the ultimate indicator of a community’s values and priorities.

When libraries are in trouble, we are all in trouble. When libraries flourish, we all flourish.

I am sure you have seen the little free “pocket libraries.” These are (mostly) privately built (and stocked) tiny structures that hold books freely available to the community. Anyone can take these books – or place their own contributions with no card, restrictions or limitations. At first I liked the idea, and I almost like it now, but it makes me like the idea of a solid, public library even better.

Public libraries are free – for the user. Yes, we, as tax payers pay for libraries – and I am glad to do it.

Whatever the means, and perhaps even whatever the results, the fair minded pursuit of “literacy, knowledge, wisdom, critical thought, and valuable interaction” is important to me – as it should be to any concerned and engaged citizen.

Books can take you all kinds of places. Photo: Morf Morford

Books can take you all kinds of places. Photo: Morf Morford

Yes, little free libraries have books, but a library is far more than books. A solid, reliable library is a center – a place where people, ideas and opportunities gather, coalesce and disperse to the wider community.

In that vein, the Tacoma Public Library (TPL) is hosting conversations with people from our community.  Each one is a chance for TPL to better understand local aspirations for our community, the concerns you have and what you believe might make a difference in strengthening the community.

“Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.”                         - Walter Cronkite

Come and be involved in your community’s conversation at this location (more to be scheduled throughout the summer and fall):

6-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 27 – Associated Ministries – 901 S. 13th Street – Tacoma. Heavy appetizers will be served.

I attended the first of a series of these community conversations on the place and purpose of libraries. The focus was more on what we, unofficial community members, wanted our community to look and feel like. Some of the issues that emerged were livability, safety, inclusivity and age, ability, cost, distance and ethnic accessibility. Some wanted an emphasis on recognition of historic themes, others wanted a focus on arts or programming. Some wanted traditional library services (books and media), others wanted to see innovative departures like recycling stations, voter registration or support of a tool, skill or repair sharing center.   (1*)

Some complained about the cost of a healthy library. Others had a far greater fear of a community without a thriving library.

I, for one, am glad to pay almost any cost for a library that contributes to the enduring health of my community. The alternative is even more frightening.

For better or worse, a library is a tangible reflection of a community. Our library deserves better – as do we.


(1*)    Repair cafes are where anyone can fix, or have fixed, something that would normally be thrown away. You can find one on Vashon Island or in Olympia - You can see more here –