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How Do You Get Your Books?

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Not "how do you choose your books?" but, how do you physically get books into your hands? People love Amazon's prices and delivery to the door, and for many nothing beats the browsing through stacks at your favorite bookstore, whether it includes a Starbucks coffee while you browse brightly-lit Barnes & Nobles' bestsellers or squeezing between dusty stacks of a locally-owned used bookshop. Neither of these options can compare to the public library. A public library system is considered essential to having an educated and literate population, and America has had a public library since 1636 or 1698, depending on your historical source. Yet people often buy books that would be better borrowed, and often miss out on the civic aspect these institutions play within their communities.

The most prominent advantage is that the public library has no price tags. Worries over whether a book is worth 25 dollars aren't a factor when you can return the offensive item for free. You can check out and return many books at once, and browse them at your leisure. True, the library charges late fees, so eventually you have to give them back.

However, not owning books is an unappreciated advantage in itself. Most people only read a book once. A library of classics you return to is a great resource, but on the other hand, you can always check a book out again. Bookshelves are useless, inefficient storage spaces put on display in a way you would never show trunks of old clothing or holiday decorations.

Reference books are needed only for that purpose, and aside from a dictionary and perhaps some others, you only need them occasionally. Travel guides are necessary during your trip, not after. For research, a person moves through many sources they don't need to keep forever. Once you buy a book, you are stuck with it; no amount of reasoning makes it seem ethical to simply throw it away, and books are often hard to give away.

As a space, a library offers distinct benefits, such as being undisturbed in public. They don't play music and talking is discouraged. You can read or study in quiet, comfortable environment. Often, the library offers that hot commodity: free wireless Internet. You won't find that in your typical bookstore where the cafe Internet is pay as you go.

Because of space, a public library is the best browsing. With typically more shelf space than a bookstore, you can pick up, flip through, and put down books for hours. Libraries carry older books than most bookstores, and have started carrying DVDs and magazines as well. Many libraries try to engage patrons in civic programs. They offer lectures as well as computer classes or book groups. Plus, a library is a great spot to drop off children, if only for story hour.

As an example, Manhattan's New York Public Library (NYPL) system is truly great. The large research branches are housed in gorgeous public structures, and offer exhibitions as well as the civic programs of smaller libraries. The small branch libraries don't always have that extensive browsing quality, but they offer another feature that makes life so easy: delivery. Not to your home, but to the library of your choosing. On the NYPL website, you can search their collection and order books and DVDs, and they will let you know when they are available for pick up via email. NYPL's online service enables you to renew online and view due dates and late fee as do many libraries, but you can also keep a list of books that you would like to read at some point. The collection includes DVDs of smaller or older films that the local video store simple doesn't have. With libraries in every neighborhood, books have never been easier to come by.

Obviously, my regard for public libraries is high. Yet recently, I found myself wishing I could share a library book with someone. A drawback (one of the few) of libraries is lack of possession. You can't give a book to a friend, scribble notes in the margins, or leave it behind on a bench, without ramifications. Even so, the public library is a great, and underused, resource for readers of all tastes and needs.

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About Art Ravels

  • Has anyone ever used BookSwim? I thought it was an interesting idea, but I don’t know if I read enough in a month to make it worthwhile.

  • Art

    What a brilliant idea! Although when I tried to use the search engine to find Proust just now I came across with a book by none other than Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen.