Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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{Books on Tape}
Books on Tape

Bookishness is not universal, but reading for pleasure is possible for many people whose physical condition limits more athletic activities. Even for those with visual impairment, books are available on tape for auditory reading. Some people seem to have been born with a disinclination to read, possibly because of dyslexia or some other limitation, but in general, you read more as you get older. Most people who enter a retirement community will arrive with a personal library, and eventually, be dismayed when the communal library tells them it doesn't want their books.

{top quote}
Retirement is finally the time to do some reading. {bottom quote}

This seems like an unnecessary waste. Professional librarians, placed in charge of much larger libraries, have long ago met together and decided what to do. Here's what you do. The first step is to appoint a committee to decide on what the core subject material should be. After a number of aimless meetings, the group will ultimately decide that our library should focus on books about, say, airplanes. For gender balance, a second focus on French cooking would do quite nicely. Second, a committee is appointed to inventory the existing library, setting aside the more popular books, and identifying what is already present in the core topics, airplanes and French cooking.

{Free Libary of Phila Books}
Free Libary of Philadelphia Books

Third step: as new entrants to the community lug in their boxes of books, the books which are outside the core focus are offered to an Internet used book exchange and sold for whatever they will bring. With the money realized from these sales, more books have purchased that fit into the core categories. It will take very little time before your library has a notable collection of books about airplanes and French cooking. People are invited to give lectures and book reviews about these topics, perhaps writing up some articles for the community newsletter. Once in a while, a really noted speaker from outside is invited to a special meeting of the community to listen to an authoritative presentation, and receive the coveted award for noted authorities on airplanes/French cooking. With suitable entries on websites, the local library becomes famous for its collection, and scholars begin to arrive at work on specialized projects and theses.

Nicolas Murray Butler

The idea can be embroidered as desired; you can organize a university if you want to. Field trips and exchanges with similar library clubs are more modest ambitions. To some extent, this idea grows out of an essay called What is a University? which Nicholas Murray Butler wrote and used for a commencement address innumerable times. Columbia Univerity's commencements are still mostly held in front of the steps to Low Library, and may or may not still end with Butler's punch line: A university is a collection of books.

There is no reason why a retirement library should not continue to offer the local and national newspapers, or that huge favorite, the detective murder mystery. Books donated by incoming residents will almost certainly reflect the tastes and interest of the community. But if there is any care taken in the selection of the core collections, the community will develop some amateur scholars in the topics, who will be found working away in the library on some article they are writing. The library becomes a natural focus for the community computer center, or computer training center, or headquarters of the users' group. On days when it is raining, some of the golfers may wander in, as well.

Originally published: Friday, June 26, 2009; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2019