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by Julia Sneden

I was at the checkout counter of a local supermarket last Saturday, watching as a pleasant woman rang up my groceries. In the brief pause as I wrote my check, the cashier turned to the youngster who was bagging the groceries.

“Hey, do you know if the library is open today?” she asked.

“Nah,” the bagger replied scornfully. “I don’t do libraries. I can Google anything I need to know.”

I happen to be aware that the bagger, who is the son of a friend, will be going to college next year. Once he gets there, I hope he may discover what a library can do for him, although in this age of pre-digested, easily-accessed information on the Internet, he may not feel the need.

It’s too bad that students today are rarely encouraged to discover the joys of doing library research, where not only can you find the book that you want, but can also look to the left and right along the shelf to browse among related books, thanks to the fact that the Dewey Decimal System groups books by topic.

Volumes to the side, above, or below your destination may prove to be useful, and not just to enlarge an assigned bibliography: they can also provide context, contending views, or historical perspective. How many youngsters finding odd but related books have thus been exposed to divergent ideas, and been forced to consider them? Analysis and comparison and judgment are the business of an inquiring, educated mind: just blindly accepting someone else’s opinion, even if it happens to be your professor’s opinion, is not.

Times have changed greatly since my great grandparents’ day, when books were the principal source of information and entertainment, and mothers or fathers nightly read aloud to their children (by firelight), chapters from long books by good writers. Within a short one hundred years, the electronic age pretty much doomed that charming image. An evening of television, followed by an occasional bedtime story read from a short children’s book replaced it.

Despite these changes, the function of the public library remains the same. It is a repository of information and entertainment and enlightenment, open to all readers living in its service area.

Our age has been called “the Information Age.” Computers have put swift information about almost anything at our keyboards and fingertips. But now that the novelty of computers has worn off a bit, we need to step back and consider that while electronic resources are exciting and immediate, we will be wise to continue to back up our knowledge of history and literature and art and science with hard copy.

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