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A Library Is: Community

A library is: Community

When Rudi Denham first started in the world of libraries, she thought she knew how to define a library. Throughout her career, libraries continually challenged and surprised her. Interested in exploring the wider perspective of libraries, in this four-part series, Rudi presents a select reading list for library lovers, along the following themes:

  • Place
  • People
  • Community
  • And last but not least … to be revealed!

A library reflects the communities and the cultures in which it operates, and library collections and programs reflect the reading tastes, the history and the priorities of the residents. In writing The story of libraries: From the invention of writing to the computer age, Fred Lerner wanted to explain the role that libraries had played in society, how the major societies in world history had used the library and how those societies were affected by the libraries they had created or had inherited. Though not by any means a new book (it is now in its second edition), Lerner shares a thoughtful documentary, beginning with the earliest recordings of crops, land ownership and debts on clay tablets in the ancient world, moving on to the Orient, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, the Islamic world, and the impact of Gutenberg, and ending with modern-day libraries for the people and with libraries of the future. For further reading, Lerner includes an extensive bibliography and a list of works consulted.

A rural library branch is an important part of the community, according to Karen Franklin, Library Director, Stormont-Dundas-Glengarry (SDG) Library Services. The library’s objectives “include demonstrating that the library is a vibrant current and natural gathering place within our communities for people to connect, create and explore, bringing our past to life with special events, community partnerships and programs that celebrate our history.

When we visit and work in modern-day libraries, it’s hard to imagine how long a library has been a vital aspect of the community. According to Lionel Casson, Professor Emeritus, New York University, the earliest systematically collected library is attributed to Ashurbanipal, ruler of Assyria from 668 to 627 BC. The library included 1,500 titles, many in multiple copies. It was a professional reference collection reflecting the issues and the priorities of the time and included:

  • Omens
  • Incantations
  • Dictionaries
  • A few purely literary titles

Lionel Casson’s Libraries in the ancient world is a thorough and an immensely readable study of libraries from their debut in the Near East to the early Byzantine period, when the spread of Christianity and of monasticism fundamentally changed the course of library history. Meant for both the scholar and the general reader, Casson admits that some facts are from archaeological finds and some are pure speculation!

Three book covers from the first non-fiction books mentioned in this article.

Perhaps more scholarly but no less readable, Wayne A. Wiegand’s Part of our lives: A people’s history of the American public library is a historical analysis of the impact of public libraries from before 1854 to the present. In chapters entitled “The liberty to read what they will and when,” “Winning the battles of everyday life” and “Library paste is a precious part of social glue,” Wiegand presents a great review of the development of library impact on the community through the decades.

The impact of libraries on their communities and vice versa is even more evident in smaller communities, as shown by Vicki Myron and Bret Witter in Dewey: The small-town library cat who touched the world.

“Libraries are important indicators of the social and cultural well- being of our communities and should be regarded as valuable assets from an economic development perspective.” Karen Franklin, Library Director, SDG Library Services.

Abandoned in the library drop box on one of the coldest days in January, the marmalade-coloured kitten had feet so frostbitten that he had to be carried by staff membersand members of the publicmost of whom were charmed by his sweet, trusting temperament. Named Dewey, the kitten arrived during a dark time in Spencer, Iowa, (population: 10,000) as interest rates, unemployment and bankruptcies were all on the rise.

Book covers from three books about Dewey the cat.

In spite of early mistreatment, starvation and frostbite, Dewey (full name Dewey Readmore Books) remained good-natured and was a ray of sunshine and hope through tough times. He transformed the Spencer Public Library into a meeting place and a tourist attraction and generated several books:

This is the third in a series of four articles, and I hope you have enjoyed exploring my idea of the library as place, people and community. What is the theme of the fourth in the series? Well, that’s a mystery! Stay tuned.

Featured titles
Casson, L. (2001). Libraries in the ancient world. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Lerner, F. (1998). The story of libraries: From the invention of writing to the computer age. NY: Continuum.
Myron, V., & Witter, B. (2008). Dewey: The small-town library cat who touched the world. New York, NY: Grand Central.
Myron, V., & Witter, B. (2009). Dewey: There’s a cat in the library! New York, NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Myron, V., & Witter, B. (2010). Dewey’s nine lives: The legacy of the small-town library cat who inspired millions. New York, NY: Dutton.
Wiegand, W. A. (2015). Part of our lives: A people’s history of the American public library. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

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Recently retired after 35 years as a professional librarian, Rudi Denham is a freelance writer with multiple articles published in professional journals such as Feliciter, Access OLA and Open Shelf, as well as other magazines, such as The Fifth Column.

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