Nearly 40 years clear of it, I still remember my first visit to a public library. It’s not with the crystal recall I might have boasted 20 years ago, when there was more tread on the tires, but the wonder — at the stacks of books, thousands of them, all there for the claiming — remains fresh, as if it happened yesterday.
And in a way, it did.
The grand opening of the Billings Public Library on Saturday, three weeks after it soft-launched to rave reviews, reminded me of that mid-’70s day in Hurst, Texas, and set me to thinking in hopeful ways about things that have preoccupied me in the years since.
The new library represents bold thinking by people who pay taxes in this town, and we should thank them for placing this kind of bet on Billings and its future. County Commissioner Jim Reno talked about the library as an economic engine — and it certainly is that, a showpiece that tells companies this is a progressive place to do business. More than that, though, it’s a major investment in public education, and it’s education that will advance our panoply of interests, from business climate to quality of life, more than anything else. We needed this place. Library Director Bill Cochran gave due credit to the old hardware store a stone’s throw away, a hulking structure that housed the library for 40-plus years. It served well, if unimpressively. We could do better. We needed to do better.
Closer to my own heart is the investment we’ve made for the people of this city to pursue the simple act of reading. It’s how we learn about worlds beyond our own, refine human empathy, accumulate knowledge and not just belief. I developed a love of reading at my mother’s knee, an early affection for Little Golden Books and Dr. Seuss Beginner Books. (I was partial to “The Digging-est Dog”; your results may vary.) Libraries indulged my habit. Bookstores allowed me to take my fix home, forever. Electrons gather at a startling pace in my e-reader now. All of these behaviors have the same genesis, and as someone who makes his living at the word game, I’m overjoyed at the prospect of the Billings Public Library encouraging the readers we already have and the ones on the way, year after year.
Some folks see no long-term future for public libraries, saying that in a world with an unlimited supply of electronic books, there’s no reason for brick-and-mortar repositories. Your public library is more adaptable than that. For one thing, electronic books are available there, too, a swipe of a finger or a mouse away. For another, to call a library a mere repository is to underestimate its versatility. If you were there Saturday, you saw it:
A library is a gathering place, a community center, a place that gives us the portals to discover who we are and what we can be. When we make use of a library, it becomes part of us.
If you doubt that, consider that just a few weeks ago I was back in Texas to visit my folks. The older I get, the more steeped in nostalgia these trips become. Among the usual suspects for my daytime and nighttime exploring—the old high school, the neighborhoods my friends and I patrolled—I made time for a special trip:
I swung by my first library.
Craig Lancaster is the author of the novels 600 Hours of Edward, Edward Adrift and The Summer Son. He lives in Billings. Follow him on Twitter at @AuthorLancaster.