John Colgan-Davis

by John Colgan-Davis

“To a historian libraries are food, shelter and even muse…Nothing sickens me more than the closed door of a library.”— historian Barbara Tuchman

I am not working this summer, which means I have a lot of free time to go to different places and to do different things. It is one of the joys of vacation: to have time to go to places that you might not be able to visit much in your regular life and to spend more time there.

And so that is how the first three weeks of my summer break have been; I have spent some extra time in some special places. And some of my most enjoyable times this summer have been in branches of the Philadelphia public library.

I love libraries. They have been places of comfort, knowledge, wonder and discovery for me since I was a young kid and the Bookmobile brought a mini-library on wheels to Dunlap Elementary School. That is where I got my first library card, and I have had one ever since — for more than half a century.

It was in the library that I first listened to the LP, “The Best of Muddy Waters,” that fueled my love of the blues. It was in the library that I discovered writers such as Kenneth Patchen, Ishmael Reed, Charles Dickens, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and many, many more.

I had people read stories to me in libraries, and to this day I love both being read to and reading to others. I spent many Saturdays there as a kid rather than being bored at home, and doing that kept me curious about the world and excited about learning.

It was in the library where, caught up in the excitement and tumult of 1960s’ America, I learned about African and African-American history, studied music, folklore and mythology, and heard thinkers and writers of all types debate the state of the world. It was in libraries that I learned the importance of ideas and learned to think for myself.

When I had a research paper to do or wanted to dig into some interest of mine, there were always wonderful librarians there to help me. So being able to spend extended time in libraries this summer has been great. It has been a return to a place where a lot of my life was jump-started and propelled.

To me libraries are at the heart of well functioning communities. They do so much: bring people together, help people learn, give a forum to people, provide an area of calm and respite, bring folks of different generations together and much, much more.

I was in the children’s section of the main branch a few weeks ago, and I eavesdropped on a cute puppet show and then witnessed a summer camp coming in for story time.

When I go to my neighborhood branch or to the Coleman Northwest Regional branch I often see chess clubs meeting, adults learning to use computers, literacy classes, and community meetings going on. I see parents who use the library as an after-school program for their kids, having them involved in library activities until they get off work.

If you go to the Free Library of Philadelphia website and look at the variety of programs and services the Free Library provides (, it becomes clear what an important role this institution plays in our lives. And if you click on any of the local branches, you will see that there is an impressive array of offerings available, from movie nights to summer reading clubs to quilting classes. And of course, this is true of libraries in the suburban areas as well. Libraries everywhere are important centers of our communities.

Unfortunately, libraries are not being funded at anywhere near the level they once were. Budgets in both suburbs and cities have been drastically cut, and libraries have borne a large share of these cuts in municipal services.

This saddens me; I now see libraries with shorter hours, fewer branches open at all times and less money to spend on adding to their collections. This is a crisis as far as I am concerned; it hurts us, our communities and our children. So if you can, I am asking that you make a contribution to your local library; to donate whatever you can.

I am in a very real way a product of the library system; so much of how I view and experience the world comes from the things I did and learned at the library. And that has helped me immensely. This is one of those unconscious debts that I picked up, and now I have an opportunity to repay it.

I grew up in a time of good schools. I had good schools to educate me and great libraries to take what I learned in school even further. At a time when our schools are no longer universally great, we definitely cannot afford to have libraries that are less than great as well. What chances do our kids have if that is the case?

As a Philadelphia resident I joined the Free Library Foundation, and you can also ( So please find a way to do that. Our libraries have helped us learn and develop; they have helped and continue to help educate generations of people and to make the world more accessible to them. That is definitely a legacy worth supporting. So please give.

John Colgan-Davis, a long-time resident of Mt. Airy, is one of the world’s greatest harmonica players and a member of the Dukes of Destiny, a local blues/soul/rock band. Those who wish to do so could send donations to: Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library, 8711 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19118