Many universities use application essay prompts that ask you to write about either a problem of some kind or something you care about. I encourage my clients to try to come up with at least one counterintuitive essay, so let’s do something completely unexpected and go with a retro subject that could fit both of these prompts: libraries. There is nothing more cool than bringing back something retro, right? And what could be more retro than a place full of printed material?
More specifically, here’s my first idea for a problem essay or an essay on an issue everyone should care about: The Decline and Fall of Libraries.
I use an e-reader, have a blog, follow news online, etc, etc, etc, but still: I believe, nay, I know that traditional libraries are important. If you think this makes me sound totally 20th Century, then read on–below you will find an annotated list of links to brilliant essays, articles and a book, all of which defend and explain the purpose of libraries and all of which are full of ideas that you could use to develop your own essay. Read them for ideas and information relevant to essay prompts ranging from the Personal Influence and Intellectual Experience to prompts about Problems of Local or National Importance. If a librarian has influenced you, this subject could also work for Common App prompt three.
Here are links to essays and opinions on libraries (and of course on books, as well):
Grazing in the Stacks of Academe–Here music critic Ben Ratlif offers a great example of how to write persuasively and evocatively; he also provides enough ideas for half-a-dozen new essays. Example: How ugly can be good (even beautiful). Click the link to check it out.
North West London Blues In this piece, published both in the print version of The New York Review of Books and as a blog post, Zadie Smith, the author of White Teeth, writes about the unremarkable but vital library in her community. Her introduction is a bit roundabout, and some of her references are obscure for those who do not follow British politics, but the problems are similar to those we have on this side of the pond, and she makes the importance of her library and libraries in general very clear.
The superb book critic and social commentator Laura Miller has a good piece on the value of libraries in Salon: Why Libraries Still Matter. Read it and be persuaded.
Did you know that the destruction of print didn’t actually start with the internet or even with the computer? Did you know that old print material is often destroyed by a machine called “the guillotine?” Nicholson Baker can tell you all about it and why places that store print materials on shelves are irreplaceable. Baker is no luddite fuddy-duddy; he was an early proponent of both e-readers and Wikipedia. He also likes video games and has written about them. Yet he strenuously defends the value of books as objects and he has written an entire book himself on the destruction of libraries: Double Fold. You can glean a great deal of information about Double Fold just by reading this excellent review in Salon: Stephanie Zacharek on Double Fold. You could also buy the book from this superb bookstore: Double Fold at Powell’s Books.
Next up is Lions in Winter. Big changes are in store for New York City’s public library system, and in this fine piece from the superb n+1, Charles Petersen gives an extremely detailed and fair-minded assessment of the changes proposed for NYC’s libraries, and in the process gives you excellent background and perspective on libraries in general and on how the world of information and books is changing. Petersen understands the need for change but also knows the value of what may be lost, and describes it eloquently. If you have trouble getting your teeth into this because of the lengthy introduction, you might actually start with Part II of this article here–Lions in Winter Part Two– and then return to Part I.
The changes planned for the NYC library system have, of course, provoked a lot of response from journalists at the New York Times and in their opinion and letters sections. You can get a variety of opinions on the value of libraries there, including but not limited to:
Sacking a Palace of Culture by Edmund Morris–he sounds a bit too much like a cranky old guy when he complains about the aroma of coffee, but he also offers an eloquent and even moving defense of the traditional research library, based on his own experience. You don’t bump into a new idea or book in the same way online or via the Apple store or Amazon as you do in the library, something Morris and a number of other writers I link point out.
These kinds of changes have been going on for some time; meet a book robot here, and assess the different views of it: A Robot Will Be Happy to Find that Book for You
On a more fantastical note, you might find this article, again by Laura Miller in Salon, which deals with the idea of a library for imaginary books: The Greatest Books that Never Were.
And as a final, tangential recommendation, check out this article, about an attempt to get a copy of every physical book and preserve it: An Ark Full of Books.
That should be enough to get you started on an essay about how libraries (or a librarian) have influenced you, or why they are important, or how their diminishment and destruction is a local, national and international problem. Keep checking back as I will be adding posts which provide new topic and source materials, and I will be addressing this year’s prompts as they are released–most universities will release their essay prompts between now and August 1st. As an example, I expect to see something from Stanford in the next week or so.