(Our much loved local library, the Blackstone, in 1907)
I’ve been thinking a lot these days about libraries, and public libraries in particular–about how much I like them, how important they have been in my life, and why they matter. So I was particularly pleased to see the various contributions collected under the title “In Praise of Libraries” in today’s edition of the New York Times Book Review (10/21/18). Public libraries, which are the focus of this little gathering of meditations by well known authors (an expanded version is available online), seem to me more valuable now then ever, given the palpable decline of our civic life and the deterioration of our public discourse. Libraries are open to all, to people from all walks of life, and of all creeds and colors, and of all ages, from babies and toddlers to teens to the elderly (with the grateful parents of those toddlers falling somewhere in there). Helping people find the books they need and want remains a critical part of the library mission, but libraries are now also the sites of public lectures, writing and reading groups, yoga classes, music performances, events and services designed to help people find employment or further their education in some way, “maker spaces” (for 3D printing, computer programming, sewing, etc.) and the list goes on. A common thread of many of these events and services, including the ones centered on books, is that, in the words of Chris Bojhalian, they not only “connect us to books…they connect us to each other.”
Here are a few other moments from the NYTBR feature that I particularly enjoyed:
Those of us launched from bare-bones schools in uncelebrated places will always find particular grace in a library, where the temple doors are thrown wide to all believers, regardless of pedigree….This is my thank-you note to every librarian who’s ever helped a kid like me, nobody from nowhere, find her doorway through a library shelf into citizenship of the world.
If there is a heaven, one of the many mansions it must contain is a red brick Victorian building, all wood and shelves, waiting for me. And the shelves will be filled with books by beloved authors, as good as or better than the ones I knew. I will read my way through the adult library, and then, to attain perfect bliss, I will enter the children’s library, and never need to leave it.
And finally, Amy Tan:
My first library gave me the freedom to exist in private, to choose and even be greedy. I took 10 books the first time — illustrated books, fables, fairy tales and happy stories of white children and their kind parents. A week later, now initiated, I was allowed to walk to the library by myself, carrying the 10 books I had finished reading, knowing I could choose many more to furnish my vast secret room, my imagination, all mine.
If books are magic doors, portals to previously unknown worlds, then walking through the door of the library allows you entry to a magical space that borders, through some kind of inter-dimensional trickery, on an impossible number of such worlds. And that “room” of the imagination that Amy Tan writes about is yet another kind of space, with which we can do as we please. So I too am grateful for libraries, and for librarians–beginning with my very first librarian, the aptly named Mrs. Lively, who presided with grace and kindness and curiosity over the glories of the no doubt small, but still, for me at least, vastly important collection at Pasadena Elementary School.