Why libraries matter

I admit it: I am not objective when it comes to libraries. In my opinion, libraries are awesome. They’re great resources of information and very democratic resources (anyone can access them).

They have provided hours of entertainment (and sometimes, refuge) for me. And I love books and information – learning, reading and growing.

So I found it very sad recently when I heard that the main library in Gary, Indiana is closing. It’s sad on multiple levels.

After all, Gary is an area that’s struggling in a way that’s unparalleled in this country (outside of perhaps Detroit). They’ve lost over 50% of their residents and a huge chunk of available work. For them to lose their main library? Is knocking a man when he’s down.

I can understand why they have to – the money simply isn’t there, and Indiana’s current state government is yanking nearly all remaining funding. And you have to see Gary to understand the level of decay – in some sections of town, it looks positively post-apocalyptic.

But I want to tell you why having a library matters. It’s a part of a community’s identity. It’s a source of pride.

That’s not just empty lecturing. I can tell you, in a very genuine way, that libraries can make a difference. I can say that about the Gary Public Library. It was where I found some incredibly helpful information.

I’ve been doing my family tree research for about a year now. And I’d been researching my grandparents’ lives and tracing their family – their parents (my great grandparents) and their siblings. Between my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather, there were 25 siblings, so it’s been a big project!

I’d figured out where most of my gram’s siblings had ended up, and even connected with some of their descendants – my mom’s cousins and their children, from my generation.

But one great-aunt remained mysterious. I knew little about her. My grandmother and mom are both gone, so I couldn’t ask them, and my aunt was helpful, but I still had some gaps in information. None of her information was coming up online.

Online records indicated she was living in California, and I happened to be in California this past winter, so I checked in the local library for her obituary. No luck.

What we did determine, from the obituaries of my great-grandmother and great-grandfather, was that at the time of their deaths, she’d been living in Gary.

So it was decided that on our next trip to Michigan City, we’d stop in Gary. And one rainy, bleary day this past winter, we did.

The library was dark and clearly had seen better days. The staff was incredibly helpful – they’d verified ahead of time that they held the newspaper from 1981 that I’d wanted to check. We went to the Indiana Room – a bit chaotic and disorganized, but filled with information. The appropriate microfilm cartridge was located.

I only had the month, not the day. So I searched an entire month’s film. And there, on the very last day, was my great aunt. She’d gone by her middle name (I’d been looking for Myrtle, but she’d been known as Ann) but it was definitely her.

It may not seem like a big deal, but it was to me. I’d found a huge branch of the family tree less than an hour from where I lived. I learned that great-aunt Ann had 10 children, including a multi-award winning high school football coach in Indiana. I was able to solve the mystery of a few photos in our family photo collection with no names or only nicknames written.

And best of all, I’ve connected with several members of my family and gotten to know them. And that’s a really nice feeling to bring that full circle. I think my mom, my grandma, and especially my great grandparents would be proud.

And of course, none of that would have been possible without the library – a library that is closing at years’ end.

For many of us, libraries have always been there. But in this evolving information age, we can’t assume they still will be.

Don’t take your local library for granted. Support them with your money* or your time. Let your local and state governments know how important they are.

You may not need a library every day. But invest in it and all of the information it holds. You never know when you’ll need it, or what door it will open.

*NOTE: I did donate money to the Gary Library for their help on my project.