Libraries are as important to our health as hospitals

Richard Lederer celebrates National Library Week with bibliophilia

Just about everyone has seen the blue street signs with the big white H and an arrow pointing the way to the nearest hospital. Now our roads are fringed by a similar kind of road marker with a prominently displayed L doodle figure reading a book and an arrow aimed in the direction of another local institution: the public library.

Such signs remind us that librarians serve us in much the same way as doctors and nurses and that books and other media are just as vital to our health as bandages and medicine.Just about everyone has seen the blue street signs with the big white H and an arrow pointing the way to the nearest hospital. Now our roads are fringed by a similar kind of road marker with a prominently displayed L doodle figure reading a book and an arrow aimed in the direction of another local institution: the public library. Such signs remind us that librarians serve us in much the same way as doctors and nurses and that books and other media are just as vital to our health as bandages and medicine.

In fact, recent scientific research reveals that those who read books, magazines, and newspapers live longer. “As little as a half-hour a day of book reading had a significant survival advantage over those who did not read,” said the study’s senior author, Becca R. Levy, a professor of epidemiology at Yale.Each year, during the second or third week of April, we celebrate National Library Week.

This year, that week spans April 10–16, and the theme is “Libraries Transform.” Elinor Lander Horwitz once wrote, “There are numerous men and women perambulating the earth, in appearance much like ordinary respectable citizens, who have warm, loving, passionate—even sensuous—feelings about libraries.”Books live. Books endure and prevail. A woman telephoned an Atlanta library and asked, “Can you please tell me where Scarlett O’Hara is buried?”The librarian explained, “Scarlett is a fictional character in Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind.” “Never mind that,” said the caller. “I want to know where she’s buried.”

For that reader, Scarlett O’Hara had been so alive that now she was dead.Books move. Books do not sit still. The first bookmobile in the U.S., a horse-drawn wagon operated by a county library in Hagerstown, Maryland, began making its rounds in 1905. But the first bookmobile in Western history was, perhaps, the property of the Dutch humanist writer Desiderius Erasmus, who wrote the first best seller, In Praise of Folly.

Erasmus had few personal possessions aside from his books, and he declared, “When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes. My luggage is my library. My home is where my books are.” No surprise then that in Erasmus’s caravan during his travels throughout 16th-century Europe, one donkey was reserved exclusively to carry his books.Near the end of the tenth century, well before Erasmus, lived Abdul Kassem Ismael, the grand vizier of Persia. Wherever Ismael traveled, he took his 117,000-volume library, strapped to his 400 camels. To expedite his reading pleasure, the camels that made up his mile-long bookmobile caravan were trained to walk in alphabetical order, each flock carrying titles beginning with one of the 32 letters in the Persian alphabet.

Books are not just inert objects to be used for a brief while and returned to the shelf. Like Erasmus and Abdul Kassem Ismael, true bibliophiles carry their libraries around with them wherever they go. Emily Dickinson, who went on expeditions everywhere while she remained at her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, knew that bookmobility travels two ways, that our books also take us with them:

There is no Frigate like a Book

To take us Lands away

Nor any Coursers like a Page

Of Prancing Poetry.

This Traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of Toll —

How frugal is the Chariot

That bears the Human Soul.

 

Librarians are the rare profession named after the buildings in which they serve. After all, doctors and nurses are not called hospitalarians and lawyers are not courtiers. Blessed be our nation’s librarians. Amalgams of scholars, teachers, indexers, counselers, traffic controllers, janitors, and baby sitters, they march in the company of secular saints. May their tribe increase and multiply.

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