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This I Believe: I Believe In Libraries

Essayist Eduardo Mendieta.

I believe in libraries.

I was born in Colombia, a country where books were luxury items, public libraries were few and bookworms were considered arrogant. I grew up being shuffled from aunt to aunt and town to town while my mother was in the U.S., working to support us from a distance.

One of the silver linings of my mother being here was that she would send us an allowance every month. I used mine to buy books. I subscribed to two books clubs: one science fiction and one history. I still remember those beautiful books and what I read: Isaac Asimov, Stanislaw Lem, Ursula LeGuin, biographies of Albert Einstein and Napoleon. Eventually, I got more adventurous and read Nietzsche, Ingenieros, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Gogol, and Marx and Engels—their books came to dominate my small collection.

Now, reading Marx and Engels got me in trouble. My whole collection of books was confiscated by an aunt and put under lock and key. But as a bookworm, I was already known to my school librarian, who took me under her wing. Unbeknownst to me, she and her husband had their own home library. She invited me and would lend me books. I would sit in their library, surrounded by ceiling-high bookcases with rolling stairs. Those were some of the happiest moments of my otherwise tumultuous childhood. 

My brother and I finally reunited with my mother after she got her citizenship. I clearly remember the first thing I did after she brought us to the U.S. I walked over to the Passaic Public Library in New Jersey and in my then “broken” English I got a library card. I couldn’t believe the size of the library or the beauty of the building. I would generally take out four or five books at a time. I still remember one of the first books I read: George Steiner’s “After Babel.” That library became a home away from home.

Of all the things I’m thankful to the United States for, I can unequivocally say that access to free public libraries is the one I am most grateful for. They deepened my love of books. They opened worlds I had never heard of. They allowed me to be part of a community of book lovers. They made me love my new country even more because of its commitment to improving the mind. 

In my State College neighborhood today, there are three Little Free Libraries, bookcases at the edge of the sidewalk teeming with books that are free. One of them is right at the end of my driveway. Almost on a daily basis I see kids and adults browsing through it. Just the other day, I saw a young girl, standing on her skateboard, helmet on, reading a book from the library—she was there for 10 minutes, in her world of words, giving free rein to her imagination.

Books should not be luxury items. They should not be put under lock and key. They should not be banned. A free book is a bridge to a free mind. This is why I believe in libraries. 

Eduardo Mendieta teaches philosophy at Penn State and volunteers to teach at the Benner Township State Correctional Institution.

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