This week the internet rediscovered a lost classic of children's literature, How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone By Yourself, which was published in 1958 by Robert Paul Smith It's a familiar kind of book; its modern counterparts would be things like the Daring Book for Girls and the Dangerous Book for Boys, but How to Do Nothing... is a bit more transgressive and shows its age, by including kid-friendly instructions for how to sharpen knives and make toy guns -- both fairly normal kid activities that tend to get edited out of todays how-to books for children -- possibly with justification, but not, one could argue, without consequences.
Naturally, the Free Library, being the beautiful and comprehensive institution that it is, has a copy of the 1958 edition of How to Do Nothing With Nobody All Alone By Yourself. Like much of our older material it's in storage in our Regional Research and Operations Center, but you can request it if you'd like to see it. Doubly amazing, we even have the ebook. Or perhaps that's not so amazing, given what Smith himself says about libraries in How to Do Nothing:
"If you don’t know what a willow tree looks like, go to the public library and get out a book about trees. You’ll notice that all through this book, I advise you to go to the library when you want to find out something. I think just plain going to the library and getting out a book is a swell thing to do. It’s something to do, when you’ve got nothing to do, all by yourself. It’s a thing I still do when I’ve got nothing special to do. I just wander around until I find a book that looks interesting; let’s say, a book about ship-building, or rockets, or a story by some author I’ve never heard of before. Now, chances are I’ll never build a ship, or ride in a rocket, and maybe I won’t like the way the author I never heard of writes. But it’s interesting to know how someone else builds a ship, or plans to fly in a rocket, or how the author feels about things."
That's a sentiment near and dear to my heart. And as someone who spends at least part of everyday in the library, it's something I know to be true. Each day, I am confronted with the sight of people finding things out, and on days when it seems that everyone is bent on getting ahead, or just plain keeping their head down, that can be a real comfort.
Of course, the popular narrative nowadays is that everyone can find everything they need online and that libraries will one day be obsolete. I think that's only half true though (I'm referring to the first part being half-true; the part about libraries being obsolete is obviously false). You can indeed find most of what you need online, but it is really hard to find what you don't know you need. And that's not nothing. As a place for finding out things you didn't know you needed to find out about, the library really shines. In fact, maybe this is why Robert Paul Smith is such a fan. He go on to say:
"I’m really serious about the library: that’s the best place to learn more. We did lots of other things when we were kids, like collecting bugs, and wild flowers, and frogs, and snakes, and stones—and in the library I promise you there will be a really expert book on each of these, and on many other subjects, written by people who’ve made a life study of those special things. There will be books about trees and radio sets and telescopes and badminton and Indian crafts and metal work, about how to make bows and arrows, how to swim, how to — oh, there’s no end. There’s even a book on how to find a how-to book.
Some silly grownup has even written a book on how to read a book."
It would be easier to compile a list of things you won't find at the library than things you will - something our friends in the maker movement have already discovered. If nothing else though, maybe you'll find one of Robert Paul Smith's other books such as, "Where Did You Go?" "Out." "What Did You Do?" "Nothing." or Lost & Found; An Illustrated Compendium of Things No Longer in General Use: the Hatpin, the Icebox, the Carpet Beater, and Oven, Household Possessions They Don't Make That Way Any More. In case you haven't guessed, Robert Paul Smith is quickly becoming one of my heros.
OK. That's enough library cheerleading for one day, besides it's only four days until Halloween and I have a paper wolf mask to make. Now, I wonder, where can I find a book about that?