Libraries break down social barriers

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The professional literature that librarians read frequently refers to “the library patron,” as if one size fits all. Actually, there is no such thing as the library patron, because patrons come from all ages, all education levels, and from the entire social spectrum in this country. And where the nation as a whole might see barriers between different groups, libraries exist to break them down.

Consider the generation gap and educational gap between a kindergartener and, say, a lawyer. They go to the library with different needs, but the lawyer was a kindergartener once. From school libraries to public libraries to academic libraries to law school libraries the child in kindergarten grew up to become the lawyer. Is such a transition even possible without libraries?

Consider the social gap between an avid reader of fiction and an immigrant who knows little or no English. The one goes to the library to find new reading experiences. The other goes to the library to learn English for speakers of other languages. With the help of libraries all over the country, immigrants learn to speak and read English, and perhaps become avid readers of fiction.

Some people cannot go to a library: prisoners, for example, or those homebound with illness or infirmity. The homeless can go to a library, they just cannot go home. Actually, although prisoners cannot go to just any library, they can certainly appreciate the services of prison libraries. Many public libraries offer services for the home bound, taking materials to their homes and later collecting them.

Perhaps homelessness is the most serious social barrier mentioned in the last paragraph. Some in society seem to fear the homeless, and certainly some homeless create problems for libraries or other places where they seek shelter. And yet in using library materials, the homeless can get the information they need to begin to sharpen their skills, gain employment, and earn enough to afford a home. Other patrons using the library at the same time have the opportunity to see homeless people not as alien or strange or threatening, but as people with much the same aspirations as themselves. That outcome may not happen enough, but when it does, another barrier breaks down.

Libraries are places where all different likes of people come for all different purposes. While all these people are gathered in one place, however briefly, they have the chance to look past superficial differences and notice common humanity. Social barriers break down whenever that happens.

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