Personal VS Public Libraries

By | Tuesday, March 05, 2013 Leave a Comment
One of the things I'm very thankful to my parents for is instilling me with an insatiable curiosity. They were very keen that my brother and I became active learners (though I don't believe that particular term had been coined back then) and we didn't just spend our school days memorizing facts and figures by rote, but we were actively engaged in our own education.

To that end, my parents bought a set of World Book Encyclopedias when I was maybe three or four. I have a vague recollection from many years later that they felt a bit taken on the deal because A) I'm sure it wasn't cheap, B) it was a traditional encyclopedia and about ten years out of date when it was published, C) it was another 5-10 years out of date when my brother and I were old enough to really use it, and D) most research projects we did for school didn't want us using an encyclopedia for reference anyway. But, while it wasn't useful in looking up something like, say, rocket technology, it did provide nice summaries/overviews of things with some historical perspective -- ancient civilizations, kings and former presidents, etc. The books were located at the bottom of our basement stairs, and I recall not infrequently sitting on the last step and just reading up on topics that I might have a passing interest in.

"Say, who was this Saturn guy they named the planet after?"

"How do levers work?"

"What exactly is/was Stonehenge anyway?"

Things I didn't need a deep understanding or knowledge of, but still wanted a bit of the basics. That bookshelf at the bottom of the stairs eventually got built into an ersatz reference library with another set of encyclopedias we acquired from somewhere, a dictionary, a thesaurus, a book of quotations... there was a Peanuts-centric children's encyclopedia, I think. A small wall of general information.

Of course, for something more in-depth or detailed, we used the local libraries. Both our own town's and the one from the next city over that was about two or three times the size.
But one thing we noticed was that Dad wasn't checking out any of the books on magic. He is a professional magician and had a bunch of books on the topic, so why didn't he use the libraries more for that? Well, because his interest was too specific for a general purpose library. That is, his level of interest was deep enough that a public library wouldn't carry any resources he wasn't already familiar with. His own personal collection of magic books was far more expansive than what would be available to the general public.

See, the reason for that is that public libraries serve the public. Seems obvious enough, right? But what that means is that their material is geared for the widest possible audience. And not just in any field or genre, but across the board. So they're going to have a tendency to be wide, but not very deep. Where they had our home reference library at an advantage was that they were much wider than ours. But on the subject of magic, ours went much deeper.

One of the problems libraries face, then, is that the internet allows anyone with a connection to be both wider AND deeper. Which is why they're largely switching (switched?) to a model that revolves less around carrying books and more around helping to direct people to specific information. Particularly when it comes to convoluted and confusing online databases, this can be enormously helpful.

That is, of course, if the full details of what you're looking up are available somewhere you can get to them. We're still at a point where not everything is available online (for both legal and resource reasons) so it's not uncommon for the best source to be the one you actually get your hands on. And some of these books/printed matter never made it into libraries in the first place. I know I have more than a few books that are decades out of print, and only had small print runs to begin with. They're just not available at all unless you manage to score a personal copy someone's selling on eBay.

I bring all this up in relation to building your own collection of comics and books about comics. Does it make sense for you -- either from a financial or an available space perspective -- to buy and store the books you do? If you want to read a copy of Maus just to see what the fuss is about, it probably makes more sense to just borrow a copy from your library. If you want to get a self-published magazine that chronicles the life and comics works of Bill Mantlo, maybe that makes more sense to purchase.

Naturally, you can make your collection/library into anything you want. I'm just positing the suggestion that you take some time to think about what you want it to look like before you realize that you've bought 10,000 comics and have no intention of reading them again any time soon.

(And, for the record, I don't regret any of my comics purchases or what my collection looks like. Although I am eager to get the whole thing out of storage once I get this upcoming move thing settled!)
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