Don’t Lock the Libraries

Photo by Stoonn,

Photo by Stoonn,

“Libraries are not safe places, and the reason for that is there are ideas to be found.” –John Bookman

“You know the republic will survive when there is new money for libraries.” –Denis Hamill

A lot of the people I grew up with were surf rats or skate rats or gym rats. I was a library rat. From the first time I signed my name on a card at the public library downtown, I was addicted to being around all those books.

But my obsession with libraries really began when I was nine years old. I had just transferred to Harding School. Sherry Thompson was the librarian.

“Where are the books about the CIA?” I asked her. “I want to learn about them because I think I might make a good spy when I get older.”

And her magic answer: “Let me show you how to find them yourself.”

She led me to the card catalog–for you youngsters who have never heard of such a thing, the cards were like Pokemon cards, only with less information on attack points, and more information on how to find a book–and she showed me how it worked.

Not only did I learn about the CIA, the FBI and James Bond that day, I finally solved the mystery of who that Sarah Bernhardt lady was that my grandma was always comparing me to when I’d get a bit dramatic.

All of those cliches about libraries opening doors came true for me that day. I was hooked. It wasn’t about falling in love with reading; I had caught that bug years before. My mom was a teacher, so I certainly didn’t need a librarian to encourage me to read. But Mrs. Thompson introduced me to research, and I dove right in with vigor, the beginning of a new life-long love.

Learning how to find information, to answer questions all by myself, gave me such a sense of sovereignty over my world. Learning to explore the world of information was just as important to me as learning how to flirt with boys or learning how to swim. I felt like I had harnessed the powers of Wonder Woman, Nancy Drew and Batgirl (a librarian in disguise). I could solve just about any mystery in the world by wielding my magical powers over the Dewey decimal system. What could be better than that?

Mrs. Thompson became my concierge into the world of information. She was always encouraging me to try to find out the answers by myself, but keeping an eye on my progress–and always right there when I needed help. For me she was the perfect kind of teacher.

I keep thinking about Mrs. Thompson when I read about all the budget cuts in the elementary schools. Our libraries have already been hit hard and they’re threatened with being hit even harder. I can’t imagine what my elementary school years would have been like without the library–and the librarian–to rely on.

Mrs. Thompson noticed my preference for fiction and promised me a lunch at the Yacht Club if I could read every biography in the school library. To this day, that was still the best burger I’ve ever had.

Mrs. Thompson was the first person I ever knew that died. I was 13 and knew enough to do some research about cancer, thanks to her.

I know the public schools are in a budget crisis, but asking a school, “an institution of learning,” to cut their library programs seems absurd to me, like asking someone whether they’d rather have an arm cut off or a leg. Cutting off our kids from such an important resource seems just as awful. There has got to be a better way.

“A library that is not accessible out of business hours is of as little value as gold horded in a vault and withdrawn from circulation,” said Alexander Graham Bell. I looked it up–at the library.

When Leslie’s not researching obscure quotes at the library, she’s online writing them at For more columns visit or read Leslie’s columns every Friday in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound.

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on November 21, 2008.