A book I was reading late one night mentions a woman in a library. Suddenly, I’m transported decades back to the small, historic New England town library where I spent much of my childhood. I grew up there, in the town, yes, but perhaps even more so in that library where I spent so many hours browsing and reading, and whose bounty I brought home to transport me to worlds far away.
At the back of the upper floor were the main adult stacks. Every letter of the alphabet beckoned with a thrill. On the first aisle to the right, I pulled down every book by Pearl Buck, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming and Erle Stanley Gardner. On the first aisle to the left I found Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and on the second aisle the riches of the travel books, which also exposed me to adventurous women, from Emily Hahn to Cornelia Otis Skinner. Back to the left was the Dag Hammarskjöld book on the UN. Far to the right rear was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I shared with my father a love of Robert Ludlum books back when Bourne was a character in a book, not a film series with Matt Damon. I traveled back to the Hawaii of centuries ago and crossed a Mideast desert in a caravan with James Michener. All of these and many volumes more shaped my future adult sensibilities.
Will the places the Internet can take young people ever replace the vast worlds inside that small public library?
At the middle of the stacks on the back wall was that much loved (by me, at least), mammoth precursor to the PC, the mighty card catalog. Drawer after drawer of index cards on thousands of books, the card catalog was the key that unlocked the great treasures of the library.
At the circulation desk an assortment of women with eyeglasses, hair in buns, cardigans over their shoulders, played keepers of the gate. Despite their stern demeanor if you were a library patron imprudent enough to raise your voice in that sacred space, they also were my heroes.
My mind jumps back further still to the lower floor of the library. To the left, the young children’s room, where the magic of The Secret Garden, Mary Poppins, Caddie Woodlawn and all the Oz books captivated me, and the We Were There books were my earliest entrees into history. The picture book section enchanted me even after I was older, with Babar the Elephant, The Lonely Doll, The Five Chinese Brothers (not at all politically correct now) and another whose title escapes me but I remember in a fond blur, involving a truck full of turnips.
In time, I moved out to the older children’s and teen’s room, where the furniture got taller and the books expanded my world even further, and I discovered the wilderness with White Fang and my keenness for mysteries with Nancy Drew.
I used to want to become a librarian, but realized that what I would have loved—helping people find a book they or their children would love or needed—has become a more hands-off exercise involving database searches, less so a friendly face at the information desk who would pore over the shelves with you, touching volumes reverently before pulling one or two off triumphantly to hand to you. I suppose today’s library is more democratic, as there really is no more gatekeeper, but I miss those days nonetheless.
I am saddened by the fact that my son is not a library lover like his mother. Yes, I took him to the library from the time he was an infant: we took out stacks of books and attended story times, and I read to him and he read to me for years. And it isn’t that he doesn’t love to read. But for research, instead of going to the library he goes to the Internet, and his college library—rarely frequented-- is a place for quiet study rather than the glory of books. For pleasure reading, he goes to the bookstore or orders online. Perhaps when he has children of his own he will rediscover and remember his youthful enchantment with the library as a place where you can not only find what you’re looking for, but stumble upon surprise after surprise.
The town I live in now has a huge new library, a massive atrium soaring up to the second floor. I miss the cozier feeling of a smaller library, though I’m sure the employees are happy to have the larger, updated space. It’s the closest library to me, but I often go instead to one further away where I can still park near the door and lug a heavy bag of books to return or to take home and devour, where the ceilings are lower and the furniture older, but the feeling of magic is somehow still more present.
I yearn to go back to my childhood library but fear I would be disappointed. I just went to the library’s website, though, and found this mission statement: “To enrich the community by connecting people to the world of ideas, information and imagination in order to support their work, education, personal growth and enjoyment.” Perhaps I would still be right at home there after all.