Why Libraries?

Tomorrow, I’ll drive almost three hundred miles to present a program at a library in Ponca, Nebraska, a town with a population of less than a thousand people. At a recent signing, a guy who’d seen the event calendar on my website asked me, as if I was crazy, “Why would a New York Times bestselling author bother to go to a small burg like that?” The line of people waiting to have books signed was long, so I gave him a quick, rather flip answer: “Because they asked me.”

Ponca Library

Really, it’s a question that deserves a more considered response.

These days I do about a hundred book events every year. A very large percentage take place in small libraries in rural communities. Towns with names like Vinton, Black River Falls, Spirit Lake, Eagle Butte, Hallock. Places most of you have never heard of and most generally with populations less than five thousand. Places that take me several hours to reach, often by backroads. Although I have a pretty good following and reputation, it’s not uncommon to discover that some of the folks who are there have never heard of me before. They come because having a real live author at their library is an event as rare as a two-headed calf.

So why spend all this time and energy, which might be channeled instead into writing more books, visiting places that are barely even dots on a map? Part of it is, in fact, the flip answer I gave the guy in the signing line: I do it because I’m invited, and I have a difficult time saying no. Part of it is that I usually ask for an honorarium. It’s a pretty modest amount, all things considered, and I donate every cent of it to the Native community in Minnesota. Part of it is that I can never resist an opportunity to talk about myself. But at heart, the reason is that I believe there’s no better mechanism for ensuring a free and democratic society than our public libraries.

Libraries are nothing less than the archives of our culture. These are the places that house the books that guide us to an understanding of who we were and where we came from, help us make sense of who we are now, and maybe point the way to who we might become. When our libraries and librarians are gone, with them goes everything we are as a people.

Free and open access to knowledge is an essential right in a democracy. Keeping our libraries alive and vital is as important to our freedom as anything spelled out in our Constitution.

So I drive thousands of miles every year and hope that in this way, maybe I’m helping the health of libraries, maybe giving back a little of what, over my lifetime, they’ve given me. But I confess, that another reason I go is that an event at a rural library is often accompanied by a potluck supper. And who can resist a good Midwest potluck?

8 thoughts on “Why Libraries?”

  1. And libraries and librarians thank you for it! Those well written words extolling libraries as cultural icons are also welcomed, but humbling to consider. As a librarian, I invited you to our space because I wanted people to meet someone who writes, a man who reads and writes well. I wanted children and their parents to see that writing is a beneficial enterprise that bears great responsibility in our society.
    I also thought, because your writing is excellent, it might inspire others to write once they met you. Humbly, I thought to impact the future. Selfishly I hoped to host a powerful successful well-attended program that would make our bitty town proud to say hey, we have this cool library and big name guys come here!
    Kent, people still ask about you and recommend your titles to others. You gotta read that guy with the sheriff on the reservation up north. Ja, he’s pretty good.

  2. Hey…you’ll be in my neck of the woods!! Just across the river in Yankton. Unfortunately, I will be at work and have to miss out…Drat! Love your books and hope you come this way again someday. Have fun in Ponca…don’t miss Bob’s Bar in nearby Martinsburg NE for the biggest hamburger around.

  3. You do that because they asked. You do that because the people in Ponca are readers, just like those in Chicago or Philadelphia. You go to those places because you know those people have as much right to see and hear and interact with important authors as anyone else. You do that because you recognize it’s the right thing to do. I know those things and I know you do also. Good on ya, mate!

  4. Kent, what a great response. As a retired Reference Associate at the King County Library System in the Seattle area, I appreciate your impassioned remarks about
    Been a reader of your books from the beginning, and loaned my copy of Ordinary Grace
    to several people who now have become your new fans. They in turn loaned the book
    to someone else & I may never get it back! It was a signed copy too…oh well,
    someone else is enjoying it as much as I did.



  5. Kent, great explanation! I’ve authored computer books for Microsoft, and authored other types of books too, so I can identify with and appreciate your stance. I really appreciate how you donate your honorariums to the Native community – everyone wins! However, what really struck home, and grabbed my attention, is that I spent many hours in that very same Ponca Library, way back in the 60’s, growing up in that small Nebraska town. Enjoy the fine people there, and may your pot luck be half as good as in my fond memories. Wish I could be there too.

  6. Thank you from all readers in what the Mpls Strib often calls “tiny” towns. We read. We have really good libraries. We love your books (especially ” Ordinary Grace”). And now we love that you care about us!

  7. I’m one of those who only just now learned of you and your MANY award willing novels. I’ve just requested 3 from my local library and I expect I will enjoy them as much as the ecstatic reviewers have. But I wanted to comment to express my admiration and appreciation for your willingness to drive to small-town libraries to speak to (probably) fairly small groups who no doubt love the time you’ve given them. I sure would, even though I’m waaay across the country and NOT in a small town. I hope to continue my enjoyable relationship with your novels for many years to come – thank you for the respect you give your readers.

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