Originally published March 2010.
Most of us take libraries for granted, without appreciating what amazing things they are. Imagine having to buy even a fraction of the books, CDs and movies we can borrow freely from even the most meager local branch, whose total inventory might be worth millions.
They also serve you and your neighbours in other, less appreciated ways. Many offer free internet access to everyone, weekly storytelling for children or night courses for adults. For decades they were a centre of most small towns, hosting meetings and events of civic groups like Oddfellows, PTA, Jaycees and 4-H Clubs. One library here hosts the art of local painters, perhaps their only recognition. Another group of libraries published short-run collections of local students’ fiction, giving aspiring teen writers a start – including myself. A library might offer bound volumes of now-extinct local newspapers, or other non-Googlable information.
Even more useful than the books or activities, though, is the principle behind libraries, that we and our neighbours can pool our resources and hold things in common that all of us occasionally need. Most of the Western World, however, adopted this principle for books and then stopped, never extending it to other obvious areas of life.
In fact, the trend of the last few decades has been the opposite – people bought more and more of their own private stocks of anything, no matter how expensive or little-used: a row of ten family homes might have ten rakes, ten chainsaws, ten lawnmowers, ten barbecue pits and ten Dora the Explorer videos, each of which is used for only a few hours a year.
Think of the money everyone could save, however, if those ten neighbours were to pitch in and buy a shed full of tools together – a rake, shovels, saws, hammers and so on. Each person would spend only a tenth of the price, yet the tools would be available when needed. There might be more wear on the tools, but there might also be more people taking care of them and making them last longer.
Any small community could also keep a library of seeds. Many garden megacenters carry only a few varieties of anything, often shipped from around the world, sometimes genetically engineered to yield only a single year’s crop. A seed library would be inexpensive insurance against unforeseen events – drought, fuel shortage, worsening economy -- that might make seeds might be harder to come by and more urgently needed.
Everyone needs medical care sooner or later, and while prescription medicines should not be casually traded or used past their sell-by dates, many other first aid items could be used in an emergency – bandages and plasters of various sizes, surgical spirits (rubbing alcohol to Americans), hydrogen peroxide and painkillers, as well as thermometers, blood pressure wraps, swabs and other basics. Such a store could also keep a few emergency substitutes–ground charcoal for poison, honey or vodka as antiseptics. Finally, it could a stock of books like Where There is No Doctor.
Food doesn’t exactly lend itself to re-use, but cooking supplies do, and many people have things like steamers, pressure cookers, woks, deep fryers and other expensive equipment that they use rarely and that could be kept in a common stock.
Any parent knows that children love new toys but are quickly bored with them, and they gradually accumulate in a child’s room until digging through them becomes an archaeological project. If each family were to frequently clean out the toys their children don’t use, however, they could create a common pool of toys that can be used and re-used.
Finally, to come full circle, we could keep books. We can recommend to our existing, official libraries books that we think might be useful in the lean times to come – gardening, home health care, water filtration – and books to tell future generations what was happening to us. Consider joining your local library board to recommend such things – I used to cover the library board, and they are usually a small group of elderly people whose hard work and subtle power to control the future goes unappreciated. They will need more volunteers as state and county funds grow scarce, and by joining the board yourself, you make sure they do not fill up with people trying to use public funds to push a single religious denomination or political party.
One easy way to start would be for you and your colleagues to engage in a spring cleaning together – books you finally admit you aren’t going to read, clothes that might come back in style in ten years and rarely-used tools from the garage. People have more than they realise, and find less clutter a relief – and since many might fear abuse of the system, it’s often best to start with things people won’t miss anyway.
Such abuse – members not giving back what they borrow – can happen, but it happens in public book libraries too, and it is rarely fatal. Things like power tools, of course, are more expensive than books, so members might have to keep them secure and enforce membership fees, security deposits or late charges to make sure everyone plays by the rules. Of course, members can also restrict their library only to trusted associates at first, but try to open it up to more people over time, until you have a critical mass in the larger community.
The details will depend on your group, of course, and that could be almost anything. It could be you and your neighbour down the road agreeing to share a few things. It could be members of your church agreeing to stock some spare belongings in the parish shed. It could be the Girl Scouts asking to store a cabinet of seeds at City Hall, or the town’s 4-H Club keeping a shed of equipment for anyone to check out. It could be poker buddies going in on a chainsaw, or people in a college dormitory time-sharing their textbooks.
The principle is the same – most of us have more than we need, and not enough. We can do more together than we can separately, and out of such networks of co-operation community is created. Whatever the circumstance, such a system creates tiny pockets of assistance in a troubled economy, and an overlapping network of such collaborations would help restore something the culture has lost.