Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: The library you see is everyone’s library

by Tracy Grimm

Traditionally, we think of libraries as buildings where books can be borrowed instead of purchased. Today, libraries in the United States and around the world are so much more. A new interactive exhibit at WVU Libraries, “Hacking the Library,” asks artists, librarians and the public to share how they have used libraries and what libraries mean to them.

The word “hacking” may make you think of finding a shortcut, changing something to make it work better or adapting something to enable success. Libraries have not always been open to everyone, but they have grown as society has and have been responding and adapting to the needs in our communities, whether that is a town, a school or a university.

You may have heard of the Kentucky librarians who, as part of the WPA Library Program during the Depression, delivered library books on pack horses to remote areas of the state. Our grandparents or great-grandparents likely would have been familiar with the American Library Association’s (ALA) service work that collected donations and organized millions of books to be sent to United States soldiers during World War I and through its Victory Book Campaign in partnership with the Red Cross and the USO during World War II.

Libraries and librarians also have a history of serving the growth of individuals. Books encountered while we are young can help us imagine all that we can be and help us discover the potential of our unique selves. Many times, we cannot know possibilities if we don’t encounter them in stories and thus be inspired to dream of them.

For example, in my 30-year career as a special collections librarian, I had the opportunity to work with numerous retired U.S. astronauts and their families. Books were an important part of their journeys. Astronaut Janice Voss spoke of being inspired to a career in science and becoming an astronaut by her favorite book, Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” So much so, she took a copy of the book on her first Space Shuttle flight. During a broadcast during the Apollo 11 moon landing mission, Neil Armstrong referenced “Voyage to the Moon” and Jules Vern’s imagined moon landing and return to Earth.

Today, libraries and librarians provide space and resources for many activities and services to help people, including venues to grow ideas for businesses, access Wi-Fi or a computer to do homework, prepare a resume or submit a tax return or meet with the Lego club or Bridge club to keep minds growing and sharp.

Libraries curate exhibits and provide spaces for people to think, explore and share thoughts beyond their everyday. Libraries, in other words, are more than just books. Libraries are pathways to individual growth and healthy communities.

For these reasons, libraries continue to be treasured resources in most communities.

For these reasons, WVU Libraries is committed to equitable access to information for all users and to service the community in which we work.

For these reasons, we continue to evolve and “hack” what we do and how we do it. WVU Libraries is an institutional member of and upholds the ALA’s commitment to libraries as essential spaces for all people to safely explore and access information about the world around them. We uphold the West Virginia Library Commission’s support of libraries roles in “developing a culture that values reading, education and freedom of access to information.”

Last week, I was getting a coffee near campus when I overheard a university librarian telling a new graduate student about some of the free research tools and assistance the library can provide her. The student expressed relief, amazement and sincere gratitude. Who knows, maybe this student will be the first person, maybe a West Virginian, to set foot on Mars.

Please support your community library and librarians.

LEARN MORE: “Hacking the Library” exhibit runs now through June 2024 in WVU’s Downtown Library. There will also be a free Artists Virtual Discussion on Jan. 26, 2024, via Zoom.

Tracy Grimm is the associate dean for Special Collections and Exhibitions at WVU Libraries.