It's hard to imagine, but little more than a century ago, the idea of the public library was new - and largely driven by one man. Before Andrew Carnegie, most books were in private hands. If you were lucky enough to have a library in your town - and be admitted to it - you had know what you wanted and ask the librarian for it.
But Carnegie was an unusual man. He believed it was the duty of a rich man to disperse his wealth responsibly before death rather than leaving it for future generations to squander.
So he built libraries. Before he was done, more than 2,500 places around the world had a Carnegie library.
We didn't need a Carnegie library in Carlisle or elsewhere in Cumberland County, because we had our own visionary benefactors who left us libraries as lasting legacies to their communities.
So where are we going with this?
It's simple. The reason Carnegie chose to invest in libraries is as true today as it was 124 years ago, when the first Carnegie library was built: He didn't believe in charity.
That may seem like a contradiction, but Carnegie didn't want to give handouts. He thought people should help themselves. Any assistance, he wrote in 1889, should go to the "industrious and ambitious; not those who need everything done for them, but those who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by help from others."
In other words, people who wanted to better themselves should have the opportunity, just like Carnegie did. He came to this country as an undereducated 13-year-old who, by a lucky turn of fate, encountered a mentor who believed in the power of books and opened his personal library to "working boys" once a week. Carnegie leapt at the chance and later became one of the richest men in the world.
Thanks to generations of like-minded individuals in Cumberland County, we enjoy an excellent public library system.
Think about what you can find in our libraries today - books on just about any subject imaginable, current magazines, scholarly journals, CDs and DVDs for education or entertainment, Internet access. There's a knowledgeable staff to help you navigate these riches of the mind, or you can browse on your own to your heart's content (another library aspect Carnegie championed). There's also programming to enhance one's enjoyment of life or to help you make better use of the information available. It is the ultimate database.
Some people, because of the Internet, think a library today is a quaint holdover from the past, but the numbers belie that. According to Jeff Wood, president of the Bosler Memorial Library board of trustees, usage of the library continues to grow. On average, nearly a thousand people a day use the Bosler, checking out more than a half-million items a year.
That's why the Bosler last week announced it will kick off a $6.5 million "Building a Better Bosler" capital campaign next spring to renovate and add on to the library complex on High Street that was first established in 1899. It seems like a big number, but $1.2 million has already been raised, and another $2.5 million has been secured through a state grant.
Also last week, the Shippensburg Public Library began the public phase of its $6.6 million capital campaign to renovate and expand its facilities. Between a state grant and money already pledged, the campaign has raised $3.2 million.
The rest will be up to us. We urge everyone who cares about their community to consider what they can give. At a time when many citizens turn a wary eye on yet another appeal for money to support this cause or that, libraries remain unique.
Libraries aren't welfare. They help people to help themselves - and our community is full of people who want to live fulfilling, well-informed lives and are willing to put in the effort. In the end, that benefits everyone.
An investment in a library is truly an investment in the future.