A Public Library Education

By Dan Denton

I watched ‘Good Will Hunting’ again this week. It’s a favorite of mine for obvious reasons, being an unkempt blue collar worker with a cocky IQ and back pockets full of hard times and childhood trauma. Plus, it has Robin Williams in it, in a great role, and I dig Williams. 

Remember that scene where Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and their friends are in the Harvard hipster bar, and the stereotypical long-haired thrift store-sweater wearing Harvard dude tries to impress Minnie Driver with his intelligence and Matt Damon steps in wearing a tattered and threadbare T shirt and intellectually emasculates him, before finishing with this iconic quote: “You dropped $150,000 on an education that you coulda got for $1.50 in late charges at the public library.”

I’ve been thinking about that for days, and I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go to college, you probably should. And I’m not saying that you can fully replicate a Harvard education on your own in a library. You can’t. But I am saying that there’s a lot of truth to that quote from Matt Damon in that movie. 

If you have the ability to read, and to comprehend at a high school level, you can learn anything you want to in America. Just head down to your local library, and get a library card, and if they won’t give you one like they wouldn’t me when I was homeless, just hang out there all day and read whatever you want. Magazines with thousands of back issues. Newspapers from several major cities. And every kind of book you can think of, just sitting out in the open waiting for anyone to come by and read it. 

Want to learn to write poetry? Pfft. No problem. You can study Whitman, Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, the Beats, City Light’s catalogue, and often many contemporary poets for free. Their books are right there. Want to learn to invest money? There’s more books about that than poetry probably, but none of them are nearly as well written. Need some self help? Brother let me tell you, it would take me two years to read every self help book at just my local Toledo Library Branch. There’s so much self help that it’s a wonder anyone goes to school or therapy. 

Now granted, not all libraries are created equal. The library I worked in part-time as a high school kid, you heard that right, this beat up factory dude worked his way through high school as a clerk at his local library. But that library was in a small Illinois town, and didn’t have close to the resources that the Toledo Lucas County Public Library has, but even those libraries have inter-library loan programs that allow you to borrow almost any book published and housed by libraries, if you can just wait a few days. 

And if you didn’t already know this, public libraries have always been so much more than just about books. My library system in Toledo? It’s the best in the world, and that’s not just me bragging. Toledo Lucas County Public Library was one of four libraries awarded the 2023 National Medal from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which is pretty much the Nobel prize of libraries. My library offers author talks, passport assistance, tutoring, document assistance, hundreds of high speed internet capable computers, art shows, poetry and writing workshops, a SAME cafe that allows you to pay what you can, concerts, space for all manner of public meetings, play areas for kids, a room dedicated to Labor History, chess clubs, and much more. 

One of the neatest things to me, is Toledo Library’s Authors! Authors! talks, where for $10-$20 a ticket I’ve been able to see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Gloria Steinem, and Molly Shannon all give live talks about their lives, their careers and their writing, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to Harvard. What I’m saying is that no matter where life takes you, never stop being a student, and there’s very few places better to do that than your public free library, where from homeless and nearly anonymous, to weary factory worker, or DIY poet, to local college professor with a doctorate, we all have equal access to the same knowledge.

Read motherfuckers. Read.

Dan Denton is a poet and novelist. His latest book is available from Gutter Snob Books.


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