The Journal Gazette
Sunday, February 21, 2021 1:00 am

Libraries: Our civic citadels

Faith Van Gilder

Libraries have always been among my favorite places.

I relish the silent environment and shelves of books, the unlimited potential of what lies on the pages.

In a library, patrons are not only expected, but encouraged, to be quiet and contemplative. I have been reprimanded, rightfully so, by watchful librarians when I mistakenly answer my ringing cellphone.

The “public” aspect of a public library offers everyone – regardless of age, income, religion, gender or ethnicity – the same opportunity to sit, relax and enrich their mind by reading.

Growing up in Defiance, Ohio, books were an escape from farm chores, a way to travel the world without leaving home. I loved visiting the stately stone library built on the site of Fort Defiance, with its cannon aimed at the confluence of the Maumee and Auglaize rivers.

Later, I learned it is one of 2,500 Carnegie Libraries throughout the U.S., Ireland and Great Britain funded by Scottish-born steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie around the turn of the 20th century. (Fort Wayne also had a Carnegie Library, which was razed in the 1960s to make way for a larger, more modern facility.)

Like most college students, I spent hours at the library to study, do research and write term papers. When I visit other cities, I enjoy popping into public libraries – Chicago with its massive green owls on the roof; New York and its iconic marble lions, Patience and Fortitude; Austin, Texas, with its soaring six-floor atrium and rooftop garden; and of course the magnificent Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

I became acquainted with the Allen County Public Library as a young mom. Almost daily, no matter the weather, my young daughters and I walked to the Tecumseh branch to attend story time, play computer games, read magazines or meet Clifford the Big Red Dog. Talking with other adults there was the extent of my social life.

Our community is so fortunate to have the ACPL system. With its 13 branches, world-renowned genealogy department and fresh outlook under a new director, it is a public treasure without parallel. In 2020, despite the pandemic, the ACPL was visited 1.2 million times. Its holdings consist of 2.9 million items, plus 5.9 million electronic offerings.

For many years I worked in downtown Fort Wayne and frequently walked to the main library to retrieve or return books, or just to get aerobic exercise on the stairs. In recent years I've had the hobby – some might call it an obsession – of reading a book a week, and borrowing them from the library has saved me thousands of dollars.

Recently I received and completed an online ACPL Community Needs Survey that referenced many services I wasn't aware libraries provide – including skills training, support groups and financial literacy. The survey said it's “both a wonderful thing and a challenge” to serve so many needs. Like other public institutions, libraries must contend with the challenges that affect the wider community, such as illiteracy, homelessness, mental illness, poverty and neglect.

Sometimes this requires libraries to expand their resources beyond what we think of as traditional library services, and I am proud that ACPL is stepping up to meet that responsibility.

During the pandemic, I've missed the library mightily, not only for providing books, but for meetings, lectures, book sales and art exhibits, not to mention impromptu chats with friends.

Beyond my own library interactions, I'm concerned about people coping with the interruption of other crucial services the library provides: children who have lost a quiet place to study or attend in-person story time; seniors who rely on the library as a safe place to socialize; and people without housing who depend on the library to use the restrooms, access the Internet, get information about other community services, and for relief from the heat or cold.

Kudos to the ACPL for persevering in its mission as it celebrates 125 years of serving our community. Someday in the future we will safely gather again at libraries and other public spaces. We can look forward to concerts, festivals and celebrations, as well as the library's spring opening of the Rolland Center for Lincoln Research. The center will showcase the vast collection of original documents related to Abraham Lincoln that the library houses and make them more accessible to all, further enhancing its national reputation.

Until that day arrives, I am proud to continue to support and patronize a remarkable institution that represents our highest ideals of a democratic society.

Faith Van Gilder is a resident of Huntertown and an ACPL card holder since 1988.

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