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When I asked Allen Hemphill to write an op-ed explaining his thoughts on libraries, I knew it would draw a crowd. He’d already encountered a lot of opposition from other commenters on just about every recent story mentioning libraries. And, frankly, his views on libraries were very different from mine, so I wanted to see if he had ideas that I hadn’t considered.

We agree on some things. For one, we both own lots of books and have to struggle not to bring more home. He wrote:

My wife made a rule that for every book I brought in, one must go out. I have shelves full, including many from the 19th century. My wall has pages from manuscripts hand-drawn by monks and from printers in the Gutenberg press era, but life tells me that libraries are a quaint relic of the past, and electronic information and entertainment are the future.

Similarly, I sold more than 30 boxes of books before I moved to San Diego and still have tall shelves full. Most of of my books are not available electronically in any form for any device at any price, though they are not particularly rare or valuable. They simply have never been published in a digital medium. I do buy the ones that are digital and that I can afford, though it’s a sore blow to pay for a book twice.

One of Allen’s ideas I’d never considered is using school libraries as public libraries, too. We already have mixed-use playgrounds and ball fields: They’re used only by students during school hours and by the community at other times. Why not mixed-use libraries? He writes:

They are vacant and unused most of the time when class is not in session, and when you propose our children use the “library.”

Now, I’m still a firm believer that libraries are right up there with schools, roads and armies as a public good that we must all support, whether we use them directly or not. It’s supported by everything I’ve ever read about childhood education and learning how to learn. Reading is so inextricably tied with educational and professional success that easy access to books cannot be left only to those who can afford their own copies of every book they want (or need) to read, or to those who can afford a home computer, home internet, or an e-book reader.

But I’ll also note that after hours and on weekends my family enjoys the new mixed-use Serrano Field at Alice M. Birney Elementary. We’d enjoy the heck out of a mixed-used Birney library, too, just as much as we already enjoy the University Heights Branch Library (which, fortunately, is just a couple of blocks away).

How much do we enjoy libraries? My wife and four-year-old son until yesterday had 42 books checked out of various San Diego Public Library branches — and we read almost all of them multiple times. And those two bookworms still wanted to check out more because there are so many good books.

Other responses to Allen’s op-ed are thoughtful and abundant. To the disagreers, Allen adds the metacommentary,

If you are ever lonely and want people heating tar and plucking feathers while looking for you, just dare to suggest that some special interest plan at some time in the near future give up their free ride.

Chris Wood called the op-ed “well said” and wonders if:

libraries should be considered more community centers with books than libraries which is what the new main library could “evolve” to if it’s volume is not filled with books.

He also comments, “The idea of a library as a collection of books for researching an idea has been superseded by technology.”

Lucas O’ Connor of Two Cathedrals, a left-leaning political blog, said it is “stunningly myopic to simply skip over all the people who can’t afford physical books or home internet access, much less the gadgetry required for e-books.”

Michael Gildea responds to Allen’s line “Today there may well be a public want, but there is certainly no longer a public need” with

The public ‘wants’ libraries precisely because it ‘needs’ libraries as an expression and exercise of shared values, democracy and civility.

He also coins a phrase: “Less anomie, more bonhomie!”

Jim Jones says “Kids have school libraries, so the ‘for the children’ point is bogus,” though he’s forgetting preschoolers.

Read the rest of the comments and contribute your own thoughts about the role of libraries.

Special invitation: You and your ideas right here. I’m on the hunt for strong opinions backed by fact and enthusiasm (or just cussedness) about anything important to San Diego County. Want to get them in digital print as an op-ed? Tell me about your ideas in an email and we’ll get started.

I’m Grant Barrett, engagement editor for voiceofsandiego.org. Drop me a line at grant@voiceofsandiego.org, call me at (619) 550-5666, and follow me on Twitter @grantbarrett.

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