Lending a hand

The Little Free Library on Juanita Avenue in Pacifica offered essentials beyond books during the pandemic. Photo courtesy Candace Bain

Is there a better word in the English language, one with more positive connotations, than “library”?

Whatever the dictionary definition, people young and old know libraries to be a hub of information that is typically free to use and entirely egalitarian. The best libraries are open to all, without regard to wealth, creed or color. They are (mostly) quiet spaces devoted to learning and free thought.

Candace Bain, of Pacifica, knows. She has one in her front yard.

Hers is one of more than two dozen Little Free Libraries — small book repositories accessible to anyone walking by — that are always open on the San Mateo County coast. Each unique, there are now more than 100,000 of them in 100 countries, all organized through a global nonprofit.

“It was adopted by the neighborhood soon after I put it up,” Bain said in an email, “and books come and go with very little maintenance from me at this point.” She noted that during the pandemic neighbors stocked it with toilet paper and food for the body as well as offerings for the mind.

The San Mateo County library system closed its doors early in the pandemic, but never the hearts of those for whom working in a library is more passion project than day job. The local libraries are where we went for flu shots, took advantage of curbside pickup of books and even where we got free boxes of food when we needed them most. There have been online art exhibits, tax preparation services, guided meditations and more services than we can recount.

If anyone labored under the impression that the public investment in a brick-and-mortar library was a waste in the digital age, this public health crisis obliterated the notion.

On Thursday, the physical library doors open once more, tentatively at first. The library system is beginning “express service,” from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 2 to 5 p.m., Thursday through Saturday. Patrons can browse the shelves, use the Wi-Fi and use the computers, as long as they don’t stay more than an hour. It’s part of a careful reopening strategy that puts safety first.

Silver linings are hard to find in the many dark days of the last year. But there is anecdotal evidence that we are reading more. If it’s true, we can expect a more curious, learned and empathetic society as a result. And libraries will continue to be the beating heart of the body politic.

— Clay Lambert

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