I’ve recently been doing some reading on the idea of “windows and mirrors.” This term is most commonly used in schools, but I’ve thought a lot about how windows and mirrors apply equally well to adults. And that as adults, we might be the ones who are in desperate need of more windows and mirrors to help us navigate our current world.

Teachers talk about the concept of windows and mirrors when they want to convey the idea that their students need diverse perspectives to become fully aware of the world and their place in it. A mirror is a story that reflects your own culture. When readers read a story that is a mirror, they can easily see themselves and their families reflected and valued. It provides the feeling when reading a story that someone *gets* me. A window, on the other hand, offers a view into someone else’s experience. A window story provides a chance to understand someone else’s perspective, especially if one’s own life doesn’t include the same issues as theirs. The idea is that I become more understanding, the more I understand others’ lives.

Of course, books are a wonderful delivery tool for these windows and mirrors. The more we read, the more we understand ourselves and the world around us. 

I think we’ve all experienced the increasing division in our political and civic discussions. One antidote to that division is love and compassion for other people. But we can only develop that love and compassion when we interact with people who are different from us. And stories can give us that point of contact.

Stories also help us understand that the world is not what it should be. Stories can help illuminate the fact that power is unequally distributed based on race, class, and gender in our world. 

When we are offered a window into what that the world feels like for someone else, it helps us recognize the unjustness. And hopefully, it creates a desire to help fix the inequality. 

And let’s face it, we currently have some really big problems to tackle, some that feel overwhelming: Addiction, poverty, greed and corruption, immigration and border control, racism, sexism, transphobia and homophobia. These are issues that our fellow humans are struggling with every day. 

Maybe you have never had to experience any of these issues personally. But the thing is: these don’t remain individual problems, they become community problems, and you are a member of your community. You have to decide what role you will play. And wouldn’t it be so much better if you understood what it’s like to experience those problems? I think we’d all be a little better off with more understanding.

This is what stories offer us: windows into the world and tools for solving community problems. If stories and books provide us with these mirrors and windows, then libraries can be thought of as institutions that specialize in providing both mirrors of acceptance and windows into the wider world. This is what gives libraries a critical role in our modern life.

I’ve been reading the book Palaces for the People, by Eric Klinenberg. In it, he argues that the power of community spaces is a critical element to a healthy community. And libraries, of course, are one example of those community spaces. Here is what he says about libraries:

“I interviewed dozens of people about their memories of libraries and learned about all kinds of ways that the experience mattered… [Describing] feeling liberated, responsible, intelligent. Forging a new relationship, deepening an old one. Sensing, in some cases for the first time, that they belong.” 
So I celebrate public libraries for providing us with a sense of belonging and offering us collections of stories that can be windows and mirrors, making our communities better places for everyone. I celebrate authors for writing the stories that move us so profoundly that they make us want to change the world. 

I celebrate my time and my colleagues at NoveList; I feel profoundly lucky to spend my days in an organization dedicated to the idea that books and stories can change lives.  

This post has been modified from its original use at the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Washington, DC.

Danielle Borasky is the Vice President of NoveList. She is currently reading A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Next up is Yale Needs Women by Anne Gardiner Perkins, which she picked up at the LibraryReads Bookalicious Breakfast at ALA.