On Giving and the Library
Books (arguably, of course) are not a necessity product in the same way as food, drink, and shelter, and the desire to read might not technically be classified as a drive in the same league as hunger or thirst, but libraries such as the Canton Free Library (CFL), where I’ll be spending nine weeks of my summer, certainly provide an essential service. And that service, perhaps even more significantly, is free. The books are free, time on the computers is free, the building is littered with tables for meeting places and houses a community meeting room that can be ‘rented’ (for free) by anyone who’d like to use it. The library even has free coffee, which I discovered, much to my delight, the morning of my first day interning.
The only library card I have created (so far), I issued to an uncertain woman who asked me, “Well, what do you need from me?”
I said, “Your name and address.”
She said nothing, perhaps expecting a price.
So I followed up with, “It’s free?”
She decided to sign up for a library card.
This might seem like a minor interaction, the kind of thing you forget about halfway through the workday, but I think it speaks to the way that people interact with the library. Patrons know that the library merely extends a service, it’s not asking for anything in return – except maybe that you return the books you borrow.
(Right beside the entrance, though, there’s a table of free books, so even returning books isn’t a hard and fast rule.)
At the same time, having only been working there for two weeks, I’ve also seen hundreds of books donated to the library. Some will make their way onto the shelves, others have been added to the ongoing book sale held on the lower level, and a lot go straight onto the ‘free books’ table. The library, then, is a place where people give and take freely.
My position at CFL for the summer is Volunteer Coordinator and at the end of my first week, I discovered that people also give freely of their time to the library. If I was keen on generalizations, I might say this implies that giving freely inspires giving freely in return. In fourteen days, I have amassed twice that number in the email addresses of enthusiastic volunteers. Last week, I recruited two high school students to help box books for an international book drive and was pleasantly surprised to find that the two brought along three friends. (The five kids managed to box three hundred books quite efficiently in about 3-4 minutes.) Last Friday, I hauled a wagon full of books (CFL’s own bookmobile) with a long-term outreach volunteer to the Towers and back to deliver books to patrons who aren’t able to get to the library in person quite as often. And this week, a brother and sister came to the library after school to weed the garden out front in hot and humid weather for fun.
Coming from a background in various kinds of retail, this kind of community spirit and eagerness to give has been extremely refreshing so far and speaks volumes of the importance of community-oriented non-profits, particularly in small towns like Canton where free coffee and wireless might be hard to come by elsewhere. Writing this, I’m shocked that I’ve only been working at CFL and interacting with volunteers for two weeks. I look forward to seven more.