Friday, July 23, 2010

The Common Good

One of my favorite places is the public library. The last time I was there, a couple I know were sitting there reading the newspapers. They were there when I came and left a minute or two before me. She had two books in her hands when they left. They are two of the best educated elders I know. They are also regulars at our weekly Stand for Peace.

As I sat there, I was gradually surrounded by children. They came as families and in larger groups of five and ten. Within minutes the floor was filled with fifty or sixty sitting children. Since I was surrounded, I began to fear I was the unknowing storyteller. But my fears were relieved when I heard the name of a well known children's musician, who was playing for them that afternoon. Soon they all headed upstairs and the music and laughter began.

A recent addition at our library is a coffee bar. It's upstairs, a quiet and comfortable alcove where children play checkers and chess, drink mango smoothies and pass the summer afternoons. It's where I meet friends for a cup of soup at noon and a cup of Indian chai (tea) any time of the day. (This is the real thing, with the ingredients prepared from scratch.)

Back downstairs, the computers are all taken. There's a short line at the check out counter as the librarians are out in the aisles helping patrons find films and books they are seeking. I'm surprised to find a copy of "Long Nights Journey Into Day," a film about the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa. Who would have thought such an item would turn up in the Brookings, South Dakota public library.

But then, there's an organization called the "Friends of the Library." They invest in films and books and infrastructure that might otherwise go begging. They raise a lot of their money through book sales. They invite folks in the community to bring in their used books and discard many from the library stacks. I always drop a hundred dollars or more when they have their biannual sale. It's one time I feel generous. Many of the books (after I read them) end up in my annual book giveaway.

For me, the library is the best example of providing for the common good. We all contribute to make it possible. It is open and accessible to all. You can use the resources as much or as little as you wish, but it's there to serve the whole community. It informs and educates us. It's mission is the common good, whether you are rich or poor, liberal or conservative, religious or not.

If only all of our institutions could be more like the public library, or the fire department, or the public lands and parks. As the pressure builds from those who believe one can and should possess anything and everything, and more of everything becomes privatized, the library is an institution we can celebrate. It can provide an example to those who question the potential of serving the common good. Why can't we have health clinics like the public library? Why must our schools be privatized? Why can't we have a public utility? "Look at the library," we can say!

Carl Kline

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