SN&R columnist Greg Lucas on becoming the next State Librarian
A little more than a week ago, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed me California’s next State Librarian. My math says I’m the 25th person to have this job since California became a state in 1850. That rocks.
What rocks even harder is that the State Librarian is charged with preserving California’s history and making sure Californians understand and appreciate the Golden State’s uniqueness. The mission statement on the website says the State Library is “the state’s information hub” and connects “people, libraries and government to the resources and tools they need to succeed and to build a strong California.”
That’s pretty exciting, particularly as the world moves deeper into the digital age. But the State Librarian also gets to tell stories about how important and vital libraries are to California and its communities and, even more awesome and essential, are the librarians who bring those places for learning and personal growth to life. E.B. White, the Charlotte’s Web and Elements of Style guy, said this:
“A library is a good place to go when you feel unhappy, for there, in a book, you may find encouragement and comfort. A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your question answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people—people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.”
California’s 1,115 public libraries and the several thousand others at universities, community colleges and public schools aren’t just about books. They’re about connections. In many parts of the state, libraries are lifelines. Californians go to public libraries to get important information like state and federal tax forms. To fill out job applications. To enroll in the Affordable Care Act. To hold meetings. To seek haven in a sketchy neighborhood.
We’ve invested many hundreds of millions in this statewide network of places of safety and study. Places that provide anyone who walks through the door with a cornucopia of connections online or in-hand. Part of the State Librarian’s job is helping that network reach and then expand its potential. Just trying to do that is going to generate a lot of good for a lot of Californians, old, young and in between.
One of the greatest lovers of libraries is Ray Bradbury, who used a rental typewriter in the basement of a UCLA library to create Fahrenheit 451—one dime for each half hour. Bradbury says it all, as he usually does, with simplicity and style:
“Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.”
The State Librarian is, de facto, an advocate for literacy. First of all, literacy is good for the library business. Second, like libraries and other centers of learning, increased literacy—financial, digital or otherwise—builds a better world.
Speaking of building a better world, one of the most attractive parts of being State Librarian is getting back on the barricades, being a foot soldier en la revolución.
It’s probably not something to admit before facing confirmation by the state Senate, but, hidden in plain sight, libraries are hotbeds of social change, unapologetic and unflagging fomenters of rebellion. Always have been. Always will be.
It’s no coincidence that information Karl Marx found in London and Manchester libraries is central to his Communist Manifesto, written shortly after he quarreled with Groucho and quit the family act.
Libraries convert every person who enters into an agent of change. Like Mark Twain says, just being in them we absorb the contents—even if we don’t touch a screen, click a mouse or crack a cover. Libraries brim with ideas, ripe for the picking. Who knows what just one of those ideas, nurtured by imagination and drive, will grow into?
Information is power. An open book is an open mind.
Hasta la victoria siempre!