Watching old movies can sometimes be an unpleasant experience for librarians. Films made during the Great Depression, in particular, portray us as women even plainer than schoolmarms and twice as crabby.
The stereotype culminated in the postwar classic, "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), when Jimmy Stewart returns to his nightmare of an alternate universe to find that his wife had met a fate worse than death -- she had become a spinster librarian.
But outside of Hollywood, libraries enjoyed a loftier reputation. For it was during the Depression years, wrote Martin H. Sable in the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, that "those who could not afford to attend college and who really desired a college education were able to achieve their aim by reading in the public library. As a direct result of such use, the public library became known as 'the people's university.' It was in those earlier, even harder economic times that the unemployed came to acknowledge and appreciate librarians' aid, patience and understanding."
February is nationally celebrated as "Library Lovers Month," and this month our staff and customers have been thinking and talking about what we love about our library system. With National Library Week coming up in April, and a new library system project to film a documentary through the voice of the library user, our history has been an important part of that conversation.
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Many of our customers have relocated from other areas, so it's worth pointing out that Beaufort was a deeply segregated community in the 1930s. Even so, the local library board opened a campus of the "People's University" for blacks in 1932, in a former church building (602 Carteret St., now housing the University of South Carolina Beaufort arts department). In 1938, this branch of the Township Library (which closed in 1965) was dedicated to J.I. Washington, the black attorney who had so long advocated its establishment.
Few self-learners have ever been like the autodidact who worked his way through the library collection in strict alphabetical order, like in Jean-Paul Sartre's 1936 novel, "Nausea." Like library customers in Great Britain, today's self-learners are most likely to see the public library as the "Street-Corner University," more than ever convenient to their own personal and family schedules. The Internet, far from eliminating libraries as predicted in the 1990s, has instead empowered the "People's University" with its own distance education service, absolutely free for all residents of Beaufort County.
The Beaufort County Library system, of course, still welcomes lifelong learners at our five "street corners," in Beaufort, Bluffton, Lobeco and on Hilton Head and St. Helena islands. For locations and hours, just go to our website and virtual branch library available at www.beaufortcountylibrary.org. You'll also find complete program schedules for adults, teens and children. Some of our most recent adult program topics have included African-American genealogy, personal organizational skills and even tai chi.
It is no exaggeration to claim that the library's online learning resources would fill a research library facility if printed out onto paper. These amount to many thousands of dollars in subscription costs, but everyone with a Beaufort County Library card can have free access through their home, personal laptop and office computers. Instructions are available at each of our branch locations for self-paced learning in vocational, professional and educational test preparation, language learning, full-text articles on many topics and levels, health information, car repair, hobbies and so much more.
Today's "People's University" would surpass even the wildest aspirations of the self-learners of the hardscrabble 1930s. Our expert "aid, patience and understanding" are ready when you are; this truly is a place for learning, for leisure and for life.
Dennis Adams is the Information Services coordinator and a community outreach leader for the Beaufort County Public Library system.