Defend public libraries—the medicine chest of our soul

BOULDER, CO - SEPTEMBER 5, 2015: The Boulder Public Library completed major interior renovations to the original 1992 building and re-opened their building in 2015.

Sylvia Wirba’s Navajo family didn’t have a car when she was growing up in Cortez, Colorado. They couldn’t afford to buy books either. But she could walk to school. And on the weekends, she and her mother and younger sister walked across town to their local public library.

The library was where Boulder’s newest library commissioner fell in love with reading and began to learn about the world outside her community. Today, the graduate of CU’s law school is a partner at a Denver law firm focusing on housing matters with Native American tribes. She lives in Boulder and now devotes her free time to the Boulder Public Library.

Like me and hundreds of other Boulder Library champions, Sylvia is hoping voters say “yes” to the library district proposal on this November’s ballot.

Since ancient times, libraries have served as a wellspring for civilizations. The earliest known library was the sacred library in Thebes, within the tomb complex of Ramsey II, the great pharaoh of Egypt. An inscription over its portals designated it as “the house of healing for the soul.” Others have translated the inscription as “Libraries: The medicine chest of the soul.”

Working for the Boulder Library Foundation over the past year, I’ve run into countless people with stories like Sylvia’s, who talk about childhood interactions with their public libraries that grounded them, helped them find themselves and learn about their community and the larger world.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read,” wrote James Baldwin. “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” 

Boulder is a relatively young community, but it has relied on libraries as a healing place since the early days. Its first libraries took the form of reading rooms that popped up on Pearl Street in the late 1800s. The population here was only about 1,000 and composed mostly of men connected to the mining industry. The reading rooms were a refuge for those who sought a more civilized way of interacting with one another, in a town whose nightlife was dominated by bars and brothels.

It was America’s Progressive Era, and a time when a national movement helped libraries become ubiquitous. It was also a local movement led almost exclusively by female volunteers who paid for the books with donations they collected by going door-to-door.

Throughout Boulder’s history, philanthropy has supported the creation, upkeep and expansion of our libraries. Our first library — now known as the Carnegie Library for Local History — was built in 1907 with a $15,000 grant from steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie. In return, the City of Boulder agreed to provide the library an annual operating budget of $1,500.

In 1961, donations helped the city pay for construction of the north end of today’s Boulder Main Library, on Canyon Boulevard. The next decade, a bequest from retired CU history professor George Reynolds made construction of the South Boulder branch in his name possible. 

The Boulder Library Foundation was established in 1974, “to help you help your library through tax exempt gifts.” In 1987, the foundation helped organize the campaign that led to a successful library funding ballot issue, which funded the completion of the southern half of today’s beautiful glass and flagstone Boulder Main Library.

Last year, the Boulder Library Foundation donated $500,000 to preserve the footprint of the North Boulder Library, which is scheduled to break ground later this year. It was part of nearly $1 million in grants made in 2021 to support library programs, events and services — an all-time high.

This level of philanthropic support is not sustainable, and well short of what’s needed. City funding of the library has not kept pace with demand, which has skyrocketed to 1 million visitors per year. Today’s library staff is 65% the size of the staff in 2000. The roof leaks at every branch. The NoBo Corner Library is closed on Mondays due to budget cuts. The Carnegie Library is open by appointment only. The world-class BLDG61 maker space is closed five days a week. The Canyon Theater was closed throughout the pandemic.

All of this would change if voters decide to fund our libraries this November. 

The additional funding would support a new branch in Gunbarrel. The collections budget would increase. Our branches would be open full-time and restored to good working order.

It’s an important time to invest in a place that creates community and develops culture. Across the country, libraries are under attack. Librarians have received death threats for defending against efforts to censor materials and ban books. Suddenly, libraries are getting dragged into our nation’s culture wars.

Libraries defend all rights to speak in a public forum. They fight censorship in all its forms. 

That’s why the Boulder Library Foundation has launched an awareness campaign with a simple message: Defend Public Libraries.

Please join us. Vote yes on forming and funding the Boulder Library District. Together we can fill the medicine chest of our soul. 

Chris Barge is Executive Director of the Boulder Library Foundation.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.


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