At Marsh's Library in Dublin, cages line the back wall. Each cage is just wide enough to hold a small desk and chair and a floor to ceiling bookcase lined and stacked and jammed with massive leatherbound tomes, their Latin titles barely legible on their thick, dust free spines. The librarian who let me in during his lunch hour, "just for a quick peek," said that in the early 1700's, when Marsh's was founded as the first public library in Ireland, scholars were locked in. The books were too expensive, too precious to risk theft or damage. If you wanted to study, you squeezed behind that desk and worked by carefully-regulated candlelight and shouted for the librarian when you wanted to be released.

Gazing through the bars and wire into the scholars' cages, I thought about knowledge and what it must have meant to read and learn when this was what it took. Before the internet and e-readers, before and mass market paperbacks, before modern printing and education systems, Marsh's Library, with its cages and locks and keys, made information comparatively accessible.

Three hundred years later, information is cheap for most of us, but for many, the public library remains one of very few affordable sources of information. In my home state of Florida, the governor says that public libraries are unnecessary these days because everything is available online. The governor must not have visited many libraries, or he would have seen the lines of people waiting to use the internet. Even in a digital age, the library offers access to knowledge that is unavailable elsewhere. (Philip Pullman wrote about this, more eloquently than I can, here.)

Like many people who grew up in low income families, I know this firsthand. I was no scholar, and the public library of my small, depressed home town was no great citadel of learning, but, to me--a gawky kid from a dirt road in Frostproof, Florida--it was my access point, my key. The library was the only place I had ever been where I could have whatever I wanted. It is a cliche to say that the library opened up a world of knowledge and experience to me, that it started my journey in books to places I could never have imagined, but it's true.

There are cages in Marsh's Library in Dublin, but I wonder how many of those scholars heard the lock click behind them and felt, maybe for the first time, totally free.


04/17/2013 4:38pm

Beautiful, Amy. Three cheers for libraries!

04/17/2013 5:49pm

Thanks, sis.

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