Last night I had my monthly meeting for the City of Sunnyvale Library Board — as I’ve noted before, I’m really happy to serve in this capacity for the community, but very often the meetings aren’t exactly wall-to-wall action. Last night in particular, I was feeling a little bit mopey. I’ve got a bad feeling about how today’s elections are going to turn out (and if an election in circumstances like this can’t turn out better than the last few years then I don’t know what to think), and I was even a little bummed filling out my California ballot — lots of foregone conclusions in the elections for people (strangely, somehow I didn’t even know that Diane Feinstein was running — that seems sort of pathetic, but it’s imminently clear that she had things sewn up way before the election even started) — and a dizzying number (13) of poorly-written, confusing and misleading ballot initiatives.
But when I got to our meeting (held in the actual library this month instead of council chambers, where it is normally), the doors were still locked, so I walked around the library for a while. Our library, I should say. And it was amazing. People who write that libraries aren’t relevant today don’t pay much attention, I don’t guess, because the library was filled with all sorts of people from Sunnyvale. Adults, teens, kids — it reminded me what a vibrant public place the library is, and why it’s important. We can go all post-modern — and I do that as much as anyone — and talk about how the Internet is making information access ubiquitous, and how the Wikipedia is making encyclopedias irrelevant, and places like Starbucks with easy WiFi are making third spaces like libraries less meaningful.
But here’s the thing: it’s just untrue.
Many, many people go to libraries to get together with others. To be by themselves. To find editorial voices. To get the help of librarians. Many, many reason. To have these conversations in the context of books, media & information — and to have the conversations in an environment where learning, finding & growing is a value in & of itself.
And in the meeting itself, my feelings were reinforced. About a dozen members of the community came to the meeting to listen, participate & discuss. A few folks came by and stayed the whole 2 hour meeting just to let us know that when an issue possibly comes up before the City Council in the next year or two, it matters a lot to them. Or, I should say, to the effort that they’re volunteering for — keeping some library services open for about 24 hours a week that only a few folks take advantage of each week. It’s not important to them because of some price/performance study, or some monetization plan, or any of the things that we routinely talk about here in Silicon Valley. It’s important to them because providing this service through volunteers is meaningful to members of our community. That’s it.
There’s a lot more that I thought about during the meeting last night, and a lot of other things came up, but when I got home I was feeling much better — incredibly better, really. Because for all the problems we’ve got in this community, in this state, in this country, we’ve got a culture of participation baked into our DNA. When people participate, it’s often loud, messy & confusing — but, in general, things get better. Because participation means that we’re all making things our own.
It was really inspiring for me. There were so many reminders that, at the end of the day, the idea that we all have not just the privilege of participating, but the right to participate — one that’s so far lasted more than 227 years — is a brilliant, hopeful ray of sunshine.