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Alex Horvath / The Californian

Columnist Valerie Schultz

For book lovers, a good library is one of the exquisite pleasures of this life. Libraries may lack the new-book smell of a fancy bookstore, but they exude an aura of ancient wisdom, a whiff of timelessness. Each volume in a library, be it a classic tome or a trashy novel, bears a legacy of a long list of previous readers. The mission of a library is to preserve history as well as to circulate the new, stitching past to present with an eye toward posterity.

The library as a repository of knowledge is as old as civilization. Some 5,000 years ago, a library in Mesopotamia held 30,000 clay tablets. The most famous ancient library, the Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt, was said to feature nearly 750,000 scrolls made of papyrus or leather. This was not exactly a public library: access to the painstakingly hand-copied scrolls was restricted to scholars with literary qualifications, but it made Alexandria an intellectual capital of its time. The Roman Empire was home to at least three libraries that were available to teachers and scholars. By the third century A.D., regular folks, oddly enough, could look at books at the public baths.

The spread of Christianity and early monasticism were instrumental in preserving libraries and the art of the written word through the Dark Ages. The dawn of the Renaissance saw a return to the Greek and Roman classics for inspiration, as well as the establishment of universities with libraries. Gutenberg's movable-type printing press in the 1400s replaced handwritten manuscripts with printed books, leading to the creation of many national libraries throughout Europe. The oldest library in the United States began with a donation of 400 books by a clergyman named John Harvard to a new university in Massachusetts, an institution that eventually bore his name. Ben Franklin opened a subscription library in Philadelphia, wherein membership dues purchased books that could then be borrowed for free. When the U.S. Library of Congress was burned to ashes by the British during the War of 1812, the federal government bought Thomas Jefferson's enormous private collection and rebuilt from there. The idea of public libraries spread nationally along with the philosophy of free public education for children: the first public library opened in New Hampshire in 1833.

Public libraries have always appealed to the citizen in me. A public library, by definition, welcomes all the public. It's a community service, not unlike K-12 schools or road maintenance or public safety institutions, provided for the common good by our paid taxes. There are rules for using the public library, but there is no entrance fee, no purchase requirement, no exclusive membership clause, making the library an equal-opportunity refuge.

More recently, public libraries provide access to technology for people who may not be able to afford personal computers or other devices that give entrance to the online world. The resources available at a public library today go beyond the printed word, and allow everyone a chance to touch the wonders of the digital age, and to use the Internet for research or social networking.

I have known a few germaphobic people who never frequent the public library, citing their fear of the risk of contamination from public spaces and from books handled by others. No amount of scented hand sanitizer would make them feel safe in such a setting. When I borrow books, however, I feel virtuous. I feel like I am saving money, consuming fewer raw materials, and making good use of my tax dollars. Besides, at the library I can read the many newspapers and magazines to which I do not subscribe.

Having spent many happy hours in libraries in schools, universities, and various cities, I am delighted now to be working as a library aide. Since my library is in a prison, it provides both legal resources and leisure reading material, and since I am neither a lawyer nor a proper librarian, I find that every day is a new opportunity for learning.

I get to spend my working hours among books and people who like books, or who at least are seeking an oasis of calm in a sometimes-tense environment.

I think of how, all my life, teachers, counselors, and parents advised, "Find something you love to do, and then get somebody to pay you to do it." I am realizing that, at a ripe age, and in addition to writing, I may have finally landed in that job.