On libraries I have known

04 November 2017

I.

The first library I knew was a single room in my elementary school. It was charged with serving every grade from kindergarten to eighth, so its range of books was necessarily wide and conveniently mixed. The books were organized by intended age, but there were no stated rules or restrictions around these invisible barriers, so I happily breached them, and read whatever I could get a hold of. Which is how I learned the library’s first, most essential lesson: Nothing is really too far out of reach.

My memory of the books I read throughout those years is spotty, bright and shining in certain areas and empty and lost in others. I remember the shelf of Nancy Drew I consumed by age seven. I remember a indiscriminate jumble of Babysitter’s Club volumes and Newberry Award winners afterwards. I remember ending up, around age eleven, deep into Robin McKinley, fairy tales and dragons and fantasy.

My favorite book from my first library was A Stranger Came Ashore by Mollie Hunter. It’s a lyrical young adult novel that brings to life the Scottish folktale of the selkie, a creature who lives in the sea as a seal but can shed it skin on land, and how one boy in Shetland faces the selkie’s threat to his family. I loved this book. I checked it out over and over, each time pencilling my name on the next line on the card in the pocket until it was just a list of my signatures and stamped dates. It was, I would understand at some point, the first time I would encounter what would become my driving literary fascination: the intersection of myth and regular human life. Many years later, when I attended high school, I returned to my old school and its library, and I found this book on the shelf, its card unmarked with any names or dates since my own. I wanted to take it. No one would miss it, evidently, and I did miss it myself. Something also rebelled in me at the thought of a good book full of beautiful and wonderful things sitting unappreciated on a shelf. Books should be read, I thought. At least read, if not loved. But if I removed it from here, I also removed the opportunity for anyone else to discover it as I had.

I did not steal the book from the library. I put it back on the shelf and hoped for the best. I never ended up back at that library again and even many more years later I heard the old school building was demolished to make way for a new one. I don’t know if my once favorite book made it to the new library.

A couple of years ago, I bought my own copy of A Stranger Came Ashore. It came from a library sale in Kentucky, complete with its own card and pocket full of names and dates of when it was read. It now rests on my own shelf, rescued, appreciated and always waiting.

II.

My second library was the one I knew for the longest period of time, the main public library in the nearest town to my rural home. It still wore the late 60s style in which it had been built: Right angles, turquoise panels and pebbled walls. There was a delineated children’s section, which I regularly returned to, even as a teenager, for folklore and Lang’s Fairy Books, but I spent most of my time in the primary section of the library. There was a large open space for magazines, newspapers, VHS tapes and CDs. Among the videos I found Orson Welles; in the CDs I met Patti Smith and Prince. The other half of the building was made of two floors for books, fiction on the ground level and nonfiction above. In my head, I can still trace my way through the aisles, knowing exactly where everything lives. In the fiction section, the authors’ names began at the far wall, and wound their way to the center, Alcott to Fitzgerald to Gaiman to Kerouac to Steinbeck, and so many more in between, books I plucked from shelves almost at random. I was open and hungry and I took everything in. It didn’t matter if it were good or not, not really. In order to learn how to discern, you have to start with casting a wide net.

I spent a lot of time in that library, my second library. Sometimes I sat at one of the tables in the high-ceilinged center, but more often I found a quiet corner, a study desk behind the history books or directly on the floor of a rarely-travelled aisle. There I figured out what space means, how to find the space to think, stretch and consider. The entire point of a library is a place you can go to find something out, which means there’s no shame in not knowing something. Curiosity is more important. It’s good to have questions, and it’s good to have ideas for their own sake. Libraries, then, are not always so much about books, or even knowledge, as much as they are about the space they make in the world for us.

III.

The library I knew in college had two parts, and two personalities: Old and new. The new was useful and soulless. The old was neglected and archival, like a basement full of boxes no one wanted and yet no one wanted to throw them away. I connected with neither part. Here I learned that all libraries were not created equal. If the space one created was too practical, for a too specialized and privileged audience, it lost the wonder of potential, and became perfunctory.

I do not miss that library.

IV.

When my daughter was a toddler growing into school age, I took her every Saturday morning to the public library in downtown Columbus, Ohio. Their children’s section was robust and included a special area with blocks, puppets, trains and a play kitchen. There were books, too, but if they registered on the kids’ radar at all they were secondary to the toys. My daughter not excluded. I didn’t mind. I thought it was still a way to establish the library in my daughter’s young mind as a Good Place, a place we liked and trusted and could go to when needed.

For my own part, however, I wasn’t able to connect with that library. I was a young, struggling single mother and there was not much space for myself. I would sometimes duck into the adult section for a particular novel, but I didn’t linger, explore or wander. I wasn’t reading much at all during that time, especially compared to the amount I read when I was younger. There wasn’t room for the thoughts or ideas around the stress and demands of others. I was emptied out. Something in me still reached out for what I remembered a library could give, but I didn’t have the ability to take it. We sat silently together, like an elderly couple who had run out of things to say to each other, and, when she grew old enough, I just helped my daughter pick out books of her own.

V.

The Harold Washington Library rests at the south of downtown Chicago’s Loop, stacked red brick crowned with baroque copper-green owls. Over the decades it has morphed into a media center, with banks of computers, a high-tech innovation lab and a youth lounge with video games and recording studios. New media does not detract from the library, though, which is what some reactionary sentiment might assume. There are computers and newspapers and puzzles and board games and floors and floors of books, and this place is a center in the truest sense of the word, a heart of community where walls protect without excluding, where anyone can go to get what they need.

I only recently began going to this library regularly, a conscious effort to return to something I remembered. I don’t bother with a smaller neighborhood branch, I prefer to make a pilgrimage to the main library, to make a journey and a destination. Now I know what floor the fiction is on, where to find the new releases, which corners are the quietest. And the Harold Washington Library is full of corners. There are desks at every turn, all the way up to the top floor of the Winter Garden, where sunlight streams in through the high domed glass ceiling. You are always guaranteed a place somewhere. There’s so much space. On each floor, a white standing sign lists what materials you will find there, punctuated by the library’s current motto: “You are home.”

I am in my mid-thirties and I am again attached to a library, just as I was at earlier points in my life. This one does not teach me new things as much as it helps me re-learn things I once knew, things that got lost over the years like junk jumbled in a drawer that just needs its right time and place. I am re-learning how to find what I’m looking for, how to wander and discover what I didn’t know I wanted, how to stretch and sit in a space.

I stack books, run them through the digital scanner myself (no more cards and signatures and stamped dates), pile them into my tote bag, then next week I bring them back and repeat the process. The process carries weight, like the books themselves, the words they’re made of heavy and solid as, brick by brick, I use them to build something new.


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