08 March 2016

No Love Left for Libraries?

My son and I just returned from a trip to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois.  We drove down there to donate the Chesley family Civil War letter to their archives, and to spend some time doing family history research.

The ALPL is arguably the preeminent research library for subjects relating to the history of the state of Illinois, the Civil War, and of course President Lincoln.  It's specialties are the hard to find publications and unique one of a kind manuscripts.  They are considered the official archive of Illinois Civil War letters, diaries, and correspondence.

The first thing I noticed is how empty it was.  In this big beautiful library with all it has to offer the researcher, there was my son, me, and another couple.  That was all.  You might say, "But Kevin, this was during the day on a weekday!  Surely it is busier nights and weekends?"  They are CLOSED nights and weekends.  Your only chance to patronize this library is Monday through Friday, 9am to 4:30pm.

Granted, because of state government budget problems, it is currently being operated by a skeleton staff, almost all pulling double duty.  I am told that there are tens of thousands of items that are still on paper index cards that need to be added to the digital catalog.  And as far as in the future scanning and digitizing the collection?  The staff snickers.  They love this place as much as we do and would love to see it happen.  But right now it is so unrealistic it doesn't even register on the scale as a dream.

Then one has to contemplate, even if the ALPL did have the money and the staff to do the library right, where are the patrons?

By contrast, right next door to the ALPL is of course the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.  On this Monday morning it is fully staffed, and busy with patrons.  I suppose we might take solace that there is still a segment of our society that wants to frequent museums.  Then again, this is Lincoln's museum, and the official one.  I am not sure this is a fair barometer of how loved are museums in this society.

"Love."  Interesting choice of adjectives.  Appreciated.  Wanted.  Cared for.  What about libraries?  Libraries with extra special unique things to offer?

At the ALPL my son and I scoured hundreds of Civil War letters and diaries written by the men who served with our ancestors, hoping to discover something new.  One folder contained what seemed to be a hundred letters by a soldier to and from his parents, sister, and brother.  As I read these letters I got to know this family intimately.  I got to understand the individuals, and feel what they feel.  Then suddenly the soldier enters a hospital for an illness and dies.  I paused.  It hit me.  I was stunned.  I was sad.  I was hurt.  In the next letter the brother, who was also serving, writes his parents he is coming home.  A few years pass and the family begins writing letters trying to locate where their son is buried?  Those letters and the letters in reply, are also included in the folder.  No answers.  No discoveries.  No solutions.  I wanted to cry.  I mourned.  I felt it.

Society loves the movies, especially loves its television, and some even love good books.  There are still reasons to love libraries too.

Copyright © 2016 by Kevin W. Walker

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