In Praise of the Public Library

THERE is something noble and true about reading and writing in a library. The stacks, some of them smelling of paper thick with a century of study, offer comfort for me. Wandering alone amongst the aisles to, scrap of paper in my hand with three letters and a series of numbers, trying to find my needle in this quiet haystack. 

In the bowels of a library, I am shielded from noise, people, and flashing lights. I can think, I can focus, I can write. It provides me with a screen I can’t find at home, where a large tv and video games and dogs and snacks and records to haunt me away from my work. When I get to my table in some far corner, I’m zeroed in, unfazed. My headphones go on and Brian Eno takes everything else away. By the time I’m at 1000 words, I don’t even know where I am. 

Libraries are more than just books. Of course, there’s music and movies, but there’s also classes, story times for children, resources for city services. Someone there will help you figure out which car to buy. The library provides a quiet place for the unhoused to get out of the rain and cold for a few hours (and if you don’t think this is an appropriate function of a library then you’ve never lived in a city, and you may have some stuff to work on). There are movie nights, they often deliver books to those who can’t make it to the brick and mortar, and these same folks will pick the books up when they’re due. They do all this as a public service. 

Libraries are home to me, and people like me. We find a nest in the confines of books and words and letters, the smell of history rubbing under our noses, the feel of a brittle, yellowed pages between our careful fingertips. The hidden obsessions waiting to be discovered. Many of us around the world are raised on libraries, they are with us throughout our entire lives, providing us with our newest sources of meaning every step of the way. 

My first library was the Lancaster City Library in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was located downtown and a trip there was always special because it was just my mom and me, and it usually included a soft pretzel and lemonade from the Downtown Growers Market. We parked in the back, on Cherry Street, rather than in the big garage. The macadam of the small, back alley parking lot always glistened and shined like rain had just stopped. Swirling rainbows danced on the surface, a result of the drops of gasoline, oil, and antifreeze. Walking through the doors into the main landing room was sacred and required silence and contemplation. Silence because my mother would go upside my head if I ever disturbed anyone, and contemplation of the books I would take home with me in a couple hours. 

Mom gave my sister and I free reign of the library; we were able to mosey, wander, and discover whatever mysteries it held. Inevitably, though, we went straight to the children and young adult section, on the third floor, climbing sets of wide, marble steps before entering the more colorful and cushioned room for kids. There were two massive aquariums outside the saloon style doors into the children’s area. They each contained bulbous-eyed goldfish bigger than my tiny head. I was entranced for a couple of minutes each time I got to the top of the stairs. 

I began reading at a remarkably young age and it didn’t take me long to graduate from the picture books of early childhood to the chapter books my sister was reading (she, too, had made this similar academic jump at a young age). Because she regularly tested our reading comprehension, my mother trusted us to pick whatever we wanted. By the time I was in 5th grade, ready to move to Virginia, she was telling me what books I shouldn’t read because they were far too young for me, a kid who was testing at college levels in reading at age 11 (I’m looking at you, Pee Wee Scouts). 

My middle school and early high school years found me floundering in school. I couldn’t make grades, I was constantly getting into trouble, some of it major. I was sad and I was angry. School didn’t make sense to me; I couldn’t keep up. I was placed in remedial classrooms and classrooms for the emotionally disturbed students, which were horrifying at that time. I began going to the library to check out forbidden tomes: books detailing sedition, and rebellion, books on cults and serial killers, and books that challenged my parents view of the world: books on world religion, Krishna texts, and light philosophy found a place on my shelves. 

When I was 16, I matriculated back to Lancaster, Pennsylvania for my final 2 years of high school and lived in a dormitory on campus. I was mere steps away from the school library and was able to read in a quiet corner until 5pm each day, before trudging back to my dorm, chaotic with the hormones of 50 teenagers living under one roof. These years found me chewing books up. My tastes had long since sophisticated: I was familiar with most of the classic, having read them in middle school, and I was not interested in authors that wrote what I call “pop lit”: the Steven Kings, James Pattersons, John Grishams, who populated my mother’s shelves. And, if I’m being brutally honest with myself, I wasn’t reading any women authors. I didn’t feel like they had anything to offer a 16 year old boy. It turns out I was way off on that one. 

The library at Lancaster Mennonite High School was broad with 20th century literature and gave me such favorites as The Human Comedy by William Saroyan and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemmingway, two books that continue to influence me 25 years later. But it was a high school library, and a Mennonite one at that, so they certainly were lacking texts that appealed to my newfound sense of intelligence and a clean sense of curiosity. It was back to the Lancaster City Library to satiate those needs. 

Of course, my first stop was the aquariums on the third floor. They were still there. So were the goldfish. Once I saw them I immediately knew this was no longer my floor and I made my way to the basement, four floors down, and dug up books that informed the next six years of my life: Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche and The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. These two books shook the already loose foundation by parents tried to build my life on, and, weak to the point of breaking, the walls fell. In college I majored in both philosophy and theology and emerged an ardent atheist and postmodern ethicist. 

Following college, I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico and the library was my first stop. I went to the downtown branch the day following my arrival and get my library card first thing. It was 2006 and I barely had lint in my pocket let alone a computer, or money to have access to the internet. Instead, the library became a daily place to check my email and MySpace. After getting home from work, I would take my roommate to the library closest to us, on Candelaria Blvd, to the neatly rowed banks of computers, where we would sit for an hour addicted to that first shred of social media. Then I got a job with a computer. After that, the biggest late fees I’d ever heard of kept me away from the library for years. 

We’ve reached a point where a confession must be made. I am not great at returning my books on time. Not even close. I’ve had plenty of late fees at plenty of libraries around the country. Video rental places, too, back when they were around. But I always got the books back, sometimes it was months late, but they always went back. Well, not always. I do have a couple books from the Hesston College Library in Kansas sitting on my shelf. They were checked out in 1999. I’m currently reformed, though. I had to be after being banned from the library for 10 years. 

Maybe I deserved what happened to me for all the times I turned books in late. Probably not. No one deserves a $600 late fee. 

A few years after I’d moved to Albuquerque, when the library was still my main place to do business and rent movies, I was reading at a coffeeshop in Nob Hill and I absent mindedly got up to use the bathroom, leaving my newly borrowed bags of books and movies at my seat. This is not something you do in Albuquerque. When I returned the bag was gone. I slumped my shoulders and walked to the bus with no backpack, feeling naked. Well, that’s a bit dramatic. I felt disappointed because I’d borrowed the three original Star Wars movies and I was planning on bingeing them that night. I went to my friend’s house and played video games instead, forgetting all about the stolen books. Then I got the job with the computer and Netflix came out, so I didn’t need to go to the library anymore.

A few years later, I was at the library again, with a stack of DVDs for the weekend and a couple books. I set them down in front of the check-out desk and handed over my battered card. 

“Looks like you got a fine,” the small woman behind the desk told me.

“What? When? For how much?”

“Get the fuck out of here, you’re kidding,” I said with a laugh. She wasn’t laughing. She was upset I cursed. They always got upset I cursed in New Mexico. I straitened. “Ok, for what books?”

“Star Wars: A New Hope, Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi…” I cut her off before she could continue the list. 

“OK, yeah, I know what you’re talking about. That was like, three years ago,” I explained.
“Uh huh, and since they’ve never been returned you have a $652 late charge,” she said, spitting acid on each word, sending heat rays from her eyes and boiling my forehead to sweat. 

“Jesus,” I shook my head in disbelief. “Can I talk to someone about this? How do I reduce this or get it to go away?”

“You bring the books and movies back,” she directed. 

“But those were all stolen at Winnings Coffee a year ago,” I became defensive, thinking that saying the name of the coffee shop would bring about understanding and compassion from this slight woman who was beginning to look more and more like an orc to me. 

“I don’t know what to tell you,” she said, and her curt tone let me know the conversation was over. She turned to the circulation bins to continue checking returned books back into the system. I made sure to put each of my movies and books back; I feared what she would do if I just left them there. 

This was the end of libraries for me in Albuquerque. When I got to grad school, I was writing papers that needed scholarly journal articles for research, and I could get all of those on my computer. I never went to the library to read or write during my time at University of New Mexico, maybe that’s why I never finished my PhD. The UNM library was daunting and full of students. There was a Starbucks inside and the sound from the espresso and cappuccino machines was deafening, and burnt coffee was always on the wind. My wife moved from Philadelphia and got a library card, but we only used it to download audio books and comics on my iPad. By 2018 I was using a paid subscription service for both reasons and no longer needed the building that had long been a part of my life. 

We moved to Oregon in the summer of 2019. Six months later, the pandemic dropped a 2-ton weight on the world. I couldn’t go to the library, and all the sudden I needed it more than ever. We were stuck in our houses for months on end, some of us longer than others. The library closed its doors. They would drop off and pick up books from you, but it wasn’t the same. The library was a place to go, an event around which you could center your day. No longer. Now it was only a building full of letters, words, sentences, and pages, not people. How’s that old Joni Mitchell song go? You don’t know what you got…

Currently, I’m sitting, mask off, in a quiet corner of the Corvallis-Benton Country Library.  I have a window beside me and I’m gazing at the great, all-consuming flames of maple trees in the late October rain. The fact that I can type and look at them at the same time makes me feel awesome as far as being a human goes. There are no movies to distract me, no dogs needing to go outside, no loud construction from the school across the street. But there is this essay I just completed for no reason at all, eschewing my established projects that need a lot of work: 2000 words on libraries. 

Distractions are everywhere.