With so much going on in the world — wars, epidemics, throngs of displaced people — one would think that the fate of public libraries in Miami wouldn’t concern anyone but the locals. Such an assumption would be dead wrong. Someone in far-away Connecticut cares deeply.
Public libraries saved my life and made me who I am. The first one was a shabby little branch of the Miami Public Library, on Northwest Seventh Street, not too far from the Orange Bowl site. It was 1963, and those who lived in that neighborhood were poor. That library no longer exists, but I remember every detail of its interior, especially its shelves and treasure trove of books. It was a few blocks from the group home for juvenile delinquents where I'd been dumped by social workers, and it offered me refuge from constant abuse by my house parents and from the pressure to join a gang. Above all, that little library opened up many other worlds, including that of the past. It was at that rinky-dink outpost of culture and learning, sparsely stocked with tattered books, where I spent nearly every evening in 1963, that I decided to become a historian.
The experience that I had there made a huge difference, not just for me, but for the thousands of students I have taught over the past 40 years and the countless readers reached by my own books. That humble library taught me to seek similar portals elsewhere. Ever since, I've spent my life in libraries and archives all over America and Europe — including some of the very best in the world — mining their treasures.
Without that throw-away little branch library in Miami, I shudder to think what might have become of me, a fatherless and motherless young Cuban refugee sent to the United States as a part of the Operation Pedro Pan exodus. I shudder to think what could happen today to those who depend on public libraries as escapes from the desolation of their lives in Miami and elsewhere, and especially those young minds and readers whose entire lives are still ahead of them.
Miami, don’t turn your back on something so important as your public libraries. Save them, please. Make them a part of the future of your city, and, eventually, they might just save you, as they did me so many years ago.
Carlos Eire, T. L. Riggs professor of History and Religious Studies,
Yale University, New Haven, Conn.