Room to read

This is the first in a three-part series about the everyday places we go.

How many valid library cards have you had at one time? My current record is three.

At the moment, I hold library cards for my university (Harvard), the city where I live (Boston), and my hometown (Milwaukee), which I still visit enough to make it worthwhile. I should probably look into the legal implications of carrying borrowing privileges across state lines; do libraries permit dual citizenship?

Either way, I have the privilege of access to three different library domains. Writing it out, that doesn’t sound like a very high number—probably because it really isn’t. But it becomes significantly more incredible when you consider that a library card is a key that can unlock all the publicly owned books in an entire city or institution of learning.

In my case, that’s 24 million books.

If you can think of a good way for me to comprehend what “24 million” even means, please let me know. Because right now, I couldn’t possibly. (Sometimes I tell my friends that I have approximately 24 million things to do, but I’m usually exaggerating… a bit.)

I wanted to spend a few days writing about those places to which many people go quite frequently without so much as a second thought—in short, places we take for granted—and there’s no better place to start than your local public library.

First of all, when you step into a library, you should consider the very remarkable nature of the institution itself. In every major city, taxpayers and municipal government have mutually decided that their community could not be complete without a place where people can go and read. I won’t say read for free, precisely, since either taxes or tuition fees ultimately fund library operations in most cases. But perhaps this only makes the institution even more remarkable: out of all the potential needs and priorities that face urban communities in this country, nearly all of our metropolitan areas (and many of our rural ones) have chosen to set aside a portion of their own incomes to allow themselves and their neighbors to read.

Lest we forget, it wasn’t always this way. Books were once considered extremely valuable—not as portals of knowledge, but as commodities. Only the rich could afford the gold it took to buy them, and only the rich could afford the time and education it took to read them. In former times, books were frequently chained to the shelves in which they stood—whence the apocryphal story of Martin Luther’s outrage upon seeing a copy of the Vulgate Bible chained to a lectern in Erfurt, Germany during his time as an ecclesiastical student there. Perhaps none other than a lack of borrowing privileges spawned the Protestant Reformation and all that ensued.

After all, modern lending libraries do more than let you come in and read the books stored there. They also let you walk out with them.

Stop for a moment and consider the trust implicit in such an arrangement! You can walk into a library in your city or town, find whatever it is you’re looking for, and take it home with you. Your only qualification is that you live in the area. And, of course, that you bring it back eventually.

It’s true that you can get into trouble for not brining books back; one friend told me of a time when her father was younger and living in New York, where he had so many overdue books that one day city personnel arrived outside his flat with a truck and a megaphone. “Come out with the books,” they blared up at his window, “and no one will be fined.”

In addition to the books themselves, though, libraries hold what is perhaps an even greater treasure: librarians. Have you ever considered exactly what a wonderful thing your librarian does? He or she has devoted a career to helping people find what they’re looking for. More than that, he or she has learned to discern connections between books, ideas, questions, answers, and (above all) the patrons who walk through their doors. I’ve never met a librarian I didn’t like.

A few library attendants, maybe. But a librarian? Never.

I still remember attending story time at my local library as a young child, and the magic they would do behind the counter when I wanted to check out a book (at first on my mom’s card, later on my own). Opening the front of the book, waving it under the red light, opening the back of the book, stamping it, running the spine along a special part of the counter, and (finally) handing it over to me. If they didn’t do the magic just right, the doors would get angry at you on the way out, and they’d have to try again.

I remember my childhood librarian, too. I called her Mrs. Teapot. Of course, that wasn’t her name, but I know she never corrected me. Once I saw her in the local supermarket and it took some time to wrap my head around the possibility that she ever left the library. I guess I thought she lived upstairs or something. I know she loved children at least as much as she loved books, and sometimes I wish I knew her real name just so I could go back and thank her now.

The entertainment world has always enjoyed poking fun at librarians. Remember Marian the Librarian from The Music Man? Or Monty Python’s Gorilla Librarian? Seinfeld had its library “detective” (Mr. Bookman), and even Reading Rainbow once featured a cartoon of Conan the Librarian. Perhaps it’s because, deep down, these sometimes stern but always helpful guides hold a special place in our affections.

Some are inclined to speak badly of libraries. They say libraries are irrelevant in an age of digitalization. They say our resources could be better devoted elsewhere. They say there are too many rules, or that fines are unfair, or that they just don’t like being quiet. Was it Borges who compared books in a library to inmates in a prison? (Or perhaps that was paintings in a museum…)

In any case, they’re all wrong.

I don’t say that often, but there’s just nothing that compares to the physicality of the local library: the sight of shelves filled with books, the sound of almost total silence, the smell of all those pages. I have one friend who doesn’t judge a book by its cover, but by its smell.

Peculiar, perhaps. But you certainly can’t do that online.

If you’re interested in helping start a library in a part of the world that doesn’t have one yet, check out Room to Read.



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2 responses to “Room to read

  1. Ruth Ryshke

    James, I can’t comprehend your enormous brain and how you can possibly think to even write about our libraries. What, do you just sit for a minute and say I am going to write about libraries. Unbelievable.

  2. Pingback: State of the Union « Adequate Notice

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