In Praise of Public Libraries: Beacons of Knowledge, Refuge, Wonder

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Grey Villet—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
The Saltville, Va., community library, 1971.
Culture
'70s

It’s no secret that the fate of the public library in America is uncertain, at best. With visitors and funding on the decline for so many libraries, small towns and cities across the country are in danger of losing an institution that serves not only as a hub of information and learning, but as a place to connect and foster a sense of community that, in the digital age, so often seems to be fading.

This picture, made by LIFE photographer Grey Villet in 1971, depicts the library in Saltville, Va., a town that learned some hard lessons about community when the chemical plant that had made so many residents’ livelihoods possible for more than 75 years shut down due to its failure to meet newly imposed environmental regulations. The company, Olin Corporation, not only provided employment for many in the town, but also funded local schools, the library and even construction of workers’ houses. When Olin left, the town was left to fend for itself, while Saltville’s residents had to rebuild the home they thought they knew.

The future didn’t look bright — but at least one former employee was confident. “When it closes, oh, I’m sure I’ll get a job. Maybe we’ll all get jobs somewhere. But the plant will be gone. That’s the thing.”

Kids will keep going to school, and people will read on their Kindles and Nooks and Kobos. But unless efforts are made to preserve them, our local libraries — places of knowledge, refuge and wonder for generations — one day might be gone. That’s the thing.

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Ife Olujobi is an undergraduate student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts studying Dramatic Writing with a minor in Film Production.  She is also an editor at the campus newspaper, Washington Square News, and writes frequently about television, film and music.

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