Library’s value extends far beyond books

Posted Oct. 11, 2008, at 12 a.m.

At a time when there seems to be nothing but rough seas roiling around us economically, it’s not a bad moment to let Emily Dickinson remind us, “There is no Frigate like a Book/ To take us Lands away.” I would add, there is no port like a library from which to launch an adventure in reading — and much more, too.

Molly Larson, director of the Rockport Public Library and president of the Maine Library Association, recently pointed out the Maine State Library’s online tool known as the Library Use Value Calculator. It is found at http://maine.gov/msl/services/calculator.htm, or you can Google “Maine State Library Calculator.” This user-friendly tool allows you to note not only how many books, magazines and movies you borrow in a typical library visit, but also whether you asked a reference question, read a periodical, used a conference room, attended a children’s or adult program, and more.

I recorded my latest library visit, during which I asked one reference question, attended one library program, used the library database, and borrowed one music CD, one film and five books. The value added up $233. And all I needed to receive these services was a library card.

It is instructive to know the dollar value of those items and services, but I knew I had also received more intangible gifts. In that single library visit, I was warmly welcomed and had a perplexing question answered immediately and with skill. While using the card catalog and perusing the book stacks, I marveled at the choices of reading matter and other materials available to me. I felt comforted as I drank in the atmosphere of a place that was at once calming and full of life. During the library program, I learned something new in the company of friends and neighbors. And I exited the library laden with more treasures to enjoy at home.

The benefits were spread out over many days, too. The movie I borrowed took me far from the financial bad news that would have otherwise filled my television screen. A cookbook provided me with a recipe for cookies I made for my daughter at college. A volume of poetry provided solace and a sense of wonder at the writer’s wordplay. A gardening tome instructed me on how to put my garden to bed, while a novel let me enter a different world before bedtime, and helped me transition from a fast-paced workday and the stress of evening news into a more restful night. Still another volume rests on my nightstand waiting its turn to entertain me with a puzzling mystery.

As I write this column, the music CD I borrowed is playing softly, while I muse on what Larson tells children as she gives them their first library cards. “This is probably the most important card you could ever get,” she tells them. “It’s even better than a driver’s license. Your library card will take you everywhere.”

And that includes home. My library card took me worlds away. And it provided comfort and practical assistance right here, too. It’s fun to find out what the dollar value of all this is, but in a deeper sense, the library’s offerings are incalculable. In fact, one would have to say they’re simply priceless in the best sense of the word.

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