The dog slept a lot. The cat doesn’t do anything, anyway. And I had more time to do what I want, when I want, and with whom I want, than I’d had in a decade.
(And, contrary to what you might think, this is neither a confession nor a tawdry tale of debauchery.)
On my free Sunday afternoon, I befriended a man named Louis Hughes. Found him in Jacksonville, up on the third floor of Jacksonville State’s Houston Cole Library. Louis and I were strangers; in grad school, I’d spent countless hours hunched over microfilm machines on that floor. But, as luck would have it, Louis and I had never crossed paths.
Today, we’re friends.
Turns out Louis was a slave for the first 30-plus years of his life. His 19th-century story is quintessentially American South: born to a black mother and white father in 1832 near Charlottesville, Va., sold more than once, worked on plantations in several Southern states. (When he was 12, he was sold for $380.) Like a new dress or pair of shoes, he once was given as a Christmas present to a Mississippi plantation owner’s wife. He was a house servant and a cook, he learned about herbal medicine, and he was occasionally whipped alongside field hands. He escaped several times but was always caught. He married and had children. He spent the last days of the Civil War working for the Confederates north of Mobile.
After the war, he went north. Cincinnati, Chicago, Canada and then, finally, Milwaukee. There, among that city’s miniscule black population, he became a successful freedman who earned his living as a hotel laundryman and a nurse to wealthy businessmen. He also started a church.
Louis Hughes died in 1913.
Louis Hughes also lives on amid the shelves of the JSU library. His life story, Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom, the Institution of Slavery as Seen on the Plantation and in the Home of the Planter, is small, dusty, non-descript, first published in 1897. I came upon it by sheer happenstance, which is how I often attack library shelves — pulling down books indiscriminately, like a preschooler reaching into a goodie box whose prizes are hidden from view.
Sometimes, I pull down clunkers.
This time, I met Louis Hughes.
Without that day trip to Houston Cole, Louis and I likely would never have met. Yes, the global reach of the Internet could have brought Louis and I together. Search engines are a roofer’s hammer; they do different things, all practical when used correctly. Their ease is undisputable. Their efficiency is improving. They’re here to stay.
And libraries? I fear some Orwellian apocalypse in which the Internet turns libraries into Edsels and most are razed for parking spaces. What an awful thought. Turns out, I’m likely wrong, too.
On 10th Street in Anniston, the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County is eternally busy, like Walmart on Saturday mornings. There, the transformation of libraries and their functions is under way: people check out books, download e-books, research information, attend seminars and classes and summer reading programs, scan microfilm and digital collections and take advantage of free Internet access.
But as for theories that people no longer need libraries because of the Internet, well, hogwash. “For our library, that doesn’t hold true,” said Teresa Kiser, director of the Anniston library. “We’re having to evolve with the technology, too. But we’re always going to be relevant.”
The story’s a tad different on the floors of Houston Cole. John-Bauer Graham, JSU’s dean of library services, said the library’s circulation numbers are indeed down: students in some disciplines aren’t checking out as many printed books. But the library’s use isn’t down, he said. The library’s “gate count” remains high, with students researching topics, using the Internet to check e-mail or download e-books, typing term papers and tapping into Houston Cole’s massive “repository of knowledge,” as Graham describes it.
As it should be, of course.
A few generations from now, when students who have never used a printed textbook reach college, these libraries’ roles will be rewritten, again. Their jobs will evolve. It’s inevitable.
That’s why fighting these advances is like running a marathon backwards — and uphill. From commerce to education to entertainment, the Internet has transformed virtually everything we touch.
But count me as a proud relic: printed books have heart and soul; they speak if you’ll listen. Magic can strike when you saunter down a silent library aisle and pluck a book off the shelf.
You never know who you’ll meet.
Phillip Tutor — email@example.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.