Indianapolis is a city that often seems stuck in a kind of chronic identity crisis. We spend a lot of time here worrying over whether we"re smart or hip or good enough. We want to be taken seriously by people in other parts of the country, but we wonder why anyone should listen to what we have to say. Is Indianapolis a leader in anything that matters? As a matter of fact, the answer is yes. The Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library system was recently ranked fifth in the country among library systems serving cities of 500,000 or more by the 2002 Hennen American Public Library Ratings, an index that measures excellence in library service. This ranking comes as no surprise; IMCPL has been setting a nationally recognized professional standard for several years now. This has translated into record-breaking levels of public usage. In 2001, over 11.4 million items were circulated, a 17.7 percent increase over the previous year and the largest 12-month circulation increase for IMCPL in 15 years. Our libraries received over 4.4 million patron visits during this period, an 11.5 percent increase over 2000. There are 659,637 IMCPL cardholders in Marion County, which means that approximately 70 percent of people who qualify for library cards have them. Many libraries are satisfied if half the people they serve hold user cards. No wonder IMCPL is undergoing a systemwide expansion, including a major overhaul of its landmark central facility on Veterans" Mall. People in Indianapolis want more of what their library system has to offer - and the library is growing to serve this demand. But public libraries are an easily overlooked part of our society"s institutional fabric. Even in Indianapolis, where the library provides us with a legitimate claim to bragging rights, one gets the impression we don"t really know what to make of this success story. Somehow I don"t think we"re likely to see concourse signs at the airport brightly proclaiming IMCPL"s excellence to the hordes of people passing through. Silly as that may sound, the strength of our library system says something important about this community. American public libraries have turned out to be one of this country"s most ingenious inventions. People go to libraries every day for books, videos, magazines and newspapers; they use library computers to log on to the Internet and phone the reference department for answers to countless questions dealing with everything from international trade regulations to the migratory habits of Sandhill cranes. Libraries are safe places for kids and free spaces for public meetings. They are cultural centers, providing a 360-degree snapshot of all the ways human beings express themselves - our arts, sciences, chronicles and entertainments. Public libraries are based on what amounts to an honor system and, most amazing of all, it pretty much works. I worked in a public library for the better part of 10 years and the democratic largesse of the place never ceased to astound me. On any given day, a small fortune in materials left the building, gladly handed over upon presentation of a laminated scrap of cardboard not quite as large as a bubblegum trading card. Sure, there were any number of deadbeats who ran off with or wrecked things, who bitched and moaned at paying fines and tried every angle they could think of to beat a system invented to give away things for free to as many people as possible. They were, by far, the exceptions. An overwhelming number of people played by what few rules there were without fanfare or complaint. Commonwealth - the idea that a community"s wealth is defined, in part, by its willingness to create assets that everyone can share - has a love-hate history in this country. Americans espouse the virtues of sharing; we just hate being told that we"re obliged to do it. Before there were public libraries, Americans could get access to hard-to-get periodicals and books by paying special subscription fees. This was fine for people who could afford it, but it kept everyone else out of the information loop - not a good situation for a country trying to grow its middle class. Then, in 1833, the people of Peterborough, N.H., decided to use tax monies to subsidize a town library available to all. The public library was born. Today, although libraries have become fixtures in most communities, some people argue that they"re not worth what they cost in taxes. Indeed, a former mayor of Indianapolis once went so far as to suggest that by lending materials that are also found in retail stores, the public library represents a kind of unfair competition. But a city isn"t judged solely by the opportunities for consumption it provides its most affluent citizens. Rather, a city"s true test has always been based on the quality of life it provides for the greatest number of its people - its commonwealth. And a healthy public library system is one of the best litmus tests of commonwealth you"ll find. As Indianapolis attempts to define itself as a 21st century cultural destination, it should look to its public library system. Built for all the people, exemplifying freedom of speech and nationally recognized as one of the best in its class, the IMCPL stands for our own best self.