Can you guess where Americans go more often than the movies? I know what you’re thinking—and it’s not fast food restaurants or the mall. Instead, it’s somewhere I’ve loved for a lifetime.
Libraries. National Library Week just ended in mid-April, so of course my favorite place is on my mind.
According to the American Library Association, public libraries clock in at 1.35 billion visits versus movies, with 1.24 billion admissions. I found that out reading the State of America’s Libraries 2019 report. And yes, I’m that nerdy. And no, you should not be surprised because if you read my blog regularly you know that lately, I’m reading quantum physics on my Friday nights instead of doing whatever “normal” people do. And I’m doing that –wait for it—for fun. My friends have threatened an intervention if I don’t put on a dress and go dancing by month’s end.
Anyway, I’ve written about my self-professed love of books before. It’s a long love affair. Take a peek at the little lady to the left. That’s me at my inaugural public library, the first in a chain of deliciousness—from the ideas you can just feel floating in the air to, well—the olfactory bliss.
As I wrote six years ago:
“My children have been raised to know their way around a library. And they know when I walk in the door of our local library, I will make my customary pause and breathe in deeply. I love that smell. The smell of paper. Of ink. Of possibility on the page.”
My first library was a nondescript, no-nonsense affair. Those librarians knew me from my toddler days through adulthood. They knew I’d always have a pile of books too high for their maximum check-out limit. And that I’d angst over which ones I had to put back. They knew I spent my allowance all too quickly at the mall, and so borrowed the latest record albums because I didn’t have the moolah to buy my own. They knew I read way above age limit, which was generally frowned upon, as in this comment when I hit the adult stacks as a third grader. Librarian 1: “These books will be too hard for you. You need to head downstairs to the kids’ room.” Librarian 2: “You must be new. She’s so bookish, I’m sure she could write these by now. Let her go.”
“Bookish,” I remember thinking. She called me “bookish.” And I smiled with delight. Some girls want to be Miss America. I wanted to be Emily Dickinson or Harper Lee.
I was one of this library’s most frequent patrons, I’m sure of it. From toddler through college graduate, I soaked in idea after idea. I pulled microfiche for research papers, sat at tables to study, browsed the stacks hoping to find a gem I’d missed on previous visits. And as I got older, if that gem was in the romance category, I made sure to avoid Mrs. C—a librarian I loved but who was also a good friend’s mother. I didn’t want reports back to my mom of her youngest reading anything “tawdry.” Library privileges were too precious to lose.
There were other libraries I frequented as I grew up—school libraries, mainly. The Catholic school library where I devoured the saint section and was told the church would need to canonize more if I wanted additional reading material. My goal, from first grade through about third, was to be a saint. I can’t tell you exactly when my life path diverged from sainthood but it may have been around the time I started amusing my friends with “mean nun” impersonations. Not very saintly of me. It was all downhill from there.
Then there was the high school library that we never called a library. It was a “resource center.” One where I tried to learn programming computers (epic fail), had countless Student Council meetings (far better results) and again had to check my reading material because of a friendly librarian who knew my family well. My mother had eyes and ears everywhere.
By the time I got to college, books were generally assigned reading rather than consumed for fun. I used the campus library only occasionally for a group-study session, or when exceedingly desperate in studying for semester finals. Rumor has it some pretty crazy stuff went on in the private study rooms on the top floor. If so, I wasn’t party to it. I had no clear idea how far-flung my mother’s library informant ring was. I wasn’t taking any chances.
When I moved to Chicago, the main public library downtown was a place I had to visit at least once, of course. But I didn’t go often. That’s one library where I can attest to crazy things occurring in the stacks, namely a homeless man exposing himself to me. I didn’t have much appetite for it after that.
But the Lincoln Park and Lakeview libraries—in the city’s near North—became places I gladly introduced someone else to. I’ve written about Gladys before. She got through the Chicago public school system with about a second- or third-grade reading level, at best. And she was brave enough to request a literacy volunteer to help her learn to read properly before she turned 30. She got me.
I soon discovered Gladys didn’t respond to the reading primers suggested, so—sitting at one of the library’s large tables–we began with Glamour magazine. We worked our way up to Cosmopolitan. And somewhere along the way, we made it to the drivers’ test manual and other practical items. Neither library was ever very busy at the times we met, sadly. But the librarians took Gladys’ daughter under their wing when they realized what her mom was trying to do. Those ladies were angels.
When my kids were born, I could not wait to get them to the library. And true to their genes, they always tried to check out stacks higher than the limit allowed. Whether tromping through snow, taking a rainy-day break or escaping from the hot summer sun, the library was a mecca for us. My youngest is still an avid reader and I love that my friend Gail works at our local library.
Hey, I’m my mother’s daughter. Of course I have my own library informant.
You may not be as bookish as I am. And you may not swoon over the smell of books. But I do hope that you, like me, support your local library. One of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, put it better than I ever could: “In a library you could find miracles and truth and you might find something that would make you laugh so hard that you get shushed, in the friendliest way.”
Miracles: Gladys gaining confidence and economic empowerment due to her own bravery and a little help from me. My children blossoming in front of my eyes as they learned of faraway lands and make-believe.
Truth: I’m not saint material. Most librarians are angels in sensible shoes.
And shushing? Well, I’m sure Gail has not been the first to shush me. And hopefully, she won’t be the last.
I intend to be a proud patron well into my delightfully ill-behaved old age.
36 Comments Add yours
A praise song to libraries that makes my heart smile with recognition too!
I had a feeling it would:). You, me and a library, a good cuppa’ tea–Heaven:).
Some lovely memories there Kristine. My first library (in the suburbs of Birmingham, England) is still right there, many years later. My mother used to say I could ‘join the library’ once I was ten. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to stand behind a counter with the ladies, checking books in and out 🙂
And in Birmingham city centre the huge reference library was an amazing place which offered quiet study space and without which I’d never have gained my professional qualifications.
Yet sadly there are many who would never dream of walking in to a library. But happily, screens big and small, have yet to consign books to the past.
Isn’t it wonderful that so many of us have such wonderful memories lasting a lifetime? And like you, I’m so happy that digital and books are still co-existing, rather than digital beating books to the ground. Hope all is well in Jersey, with spring on the way for that pretty isle!
The library feels like a sacred space. Adults and children alike , respect the rules and the written word. Lovely post reflecting on your experiences in this institution 👏💚
Sacred space is a good description, Karen! 👏 Thank you for the kind words. ❤️
Libraries are awesome.
When I was in India, the uni library was my go-to spot. Thinking back on it, I spent a lot of time there.
Now in Auckland, i keep visiting library. I always have one book issued from it.
Also, speaking of libraries, I keep news articles about how the library funding is being cut in the states. That really sucks.
It does suck! We seem to be getting less in lightened instead of more in lightened. I love that you are a library fan. I donate quite a bit to mine for books sales, etc. to help shore up funding. It’s such a tiny step, but I am finding that as I want to change the world, it appears I must do my own tiny part :-). And trust everyone else to do theirs.
I’ve loved libraries ever since I was little and my dad used to take me on Saturday mornings. The current Conservative government here just cut funding to libraries as well as a lot of other things, because they’re idiots. It’s going to be a long 3 more years until we’re rid of the fools!
Ah, yes. Our less than enlightened government. Don’t get me started on that funding cut and many others. I love, though, that your dad used to take you to the library on Saturday mornings. That is when my mom used to take me. And it was a golden hour :-).
What a wonderful tribute to libraries. I was raised in a family of readers, and have always loved books. They have been doorways to all sorts of adventures and information I couldn’t drink in fast enough. In fact, my first love, back in college, was such a diligent student that many of our dates were in the university library getting our studies done, rather than going out drinking like pretty much everyone else. He later went on to earn 2 masters degrees, the second one being an MLA. When I had my son, we went to a few local libraries, and he always loved being read to. However, reading and books have proven to be challenging for him, having dyslexia. It breaks my heart he’ll never get the same enjoyment from books and libraries I had. And he’ll never appreciate what a great resource they are.
I recently signed up and auditioned to read books for dyslexic kids. To record them so that they can be made available in an audio library. For the very reason that you mention, actually. I so enjoyed books and it pains me to think of kids not being able to get the benefit of those stories and knowledge. I can’t say that I ever really had a study date, but he sounds like a good guy if he was willing to have dates like that :-).
OMG! Your volunteer work is the how and why of Bookshare.org! It’s a government run website for people with print disabilities – either vision issues or learning disabled. I tried like crazy to get my son signed up for it when he was in middle school, but the school psychologist wouldn’t do it, even with a 19 page report from a neuropsychologist. (The ignorance astounds me). Last fall, when a different neuropsychologist re-evaluated him, she got us signed up with a private, paid version (has a bit more to it) of Bookshare. He’s actually making his way through books remembering names and details, able to discuss them, for the first time (when I crack down on him and make him read). Thank you so much for doing it, no matter who it’s for. It’s a game changer.
Oh, I so love that! I have been trying to make time in a super busy schedule and your story motivates me even more :-). It is so nice to know that we can all use our talents in some way to help the world, however small. The .org I’m with is called Learning Ally.
OMG!! That’s the website we use. It’s fantastic! It even has textbooks, like my son’s high school biology book. (Probably not fun to read, but invaluable for kids like mine).
Oh, that is kismet. I love the idea that your son might be listening to a book that I narrate one day :-). Although, thus far I have been leaning toward the books for younger children. But wouldn’t that be great? Yet another connection between us in the ether.
🙂 A lovely post I enjoyed reading. Two years ago the University Department I work for closed its 8th floor library for good! The reason being students just didn’t visit any longer, which I guess the reason my own Town’s library is as you say now a resource centre 😦 .
Oh, I just hate that trend. I think no matter how digital we get, there is always a place for real books and real connection.
Wonderful post that brought me back to my regular branch library on Main St in Worcester. It’s probably a restaurant now for subs or pizza. I’m surprised that’s not the most visited place the way they’re popping up. I enjoy my town library which is a 7 min walk. Thanks for the post.
Library‘s are in such trouble, funding -wise. I don’t always feel like I have time to support every cause that I’d like to, but I try to support this one because it’s near and dear to my heart. I love that you are so close to your library and that you frequent it.
I go in spurts. It’s actually a busy library. But there’s something special about walking about a library and noticing the aroma of books, enjoying the quiet of the active minds and wondering if I’m a dinosaur by even being here. It’s almost a place that is a throwback to better times. Don’t you love the Dewey decimal system?
Such a lovely post, Kristine. I read pretty much everything in our elementary school library. I love the smell of books that come from a library yet I never go to mine. I really should go back though I have fallen into a “no damn time ti read” period. Or not to my satisfaction.
I’m thinking after the move (June 1st) and settled in with some sort of a rhythm, I shall go back to it. You sure have given me the taste for it!
Sadly, neither of my boys inherited my gene – which my sisters and I got from our mother. The youngest did for a while but now in the computer age, that has fallen to the wayside. The eldest was never a fan – which can be blamed on his HDD. Oh well.
I bet that gene will come through in the next generation deal :-). You’ll be taking A tiny tot who looks at you as if you are the very best grandma in the world. Because of course you will be. And I do hope you go back and visit after your move. It’s just such a nice energy to be part of.
How utterly wonderful to know that libraries are measurably as popular as I anecdotally believe them to be (I’m extrapolating your stats to my country too). My love of libraries extended to gaining a mid-life library degree (which didn’t get me a job, but has been useful in so many other ways). Like you, I couldn’t wait to introduce the boy-child to reading and libraries, and vaguely remember breast-feeding him in the 630 stacks of Milton Keynes library — presumably on the basis that agriculture wouldn’t be a popular subject in that concrete jungle and we wouldn’t be disturbed.
When he was a bit older we used to go to the toddler sessions and he got to know one of the young librarians well enough that they still chat if they bump into each other — 18 years after he used to follow her around the kids section asking a million questions that she ever so patiently answered for him.
Doesn’t it just give you hope for the world? If more people are heading to library than the movies, we can’t be as bad off as we sometimes appear. And I am laughing at your logic in the stacks. It’s perfect :-). Perhaps quantum physics would’ve been another good choice :-). 😂 I love that your son still chance with the librarian. They truly are angels, most of them. Even the shushing ones.
It does! Interestingly just before I read your post, I’d been reading this article https://www.pantograph-punch.com/post/future-libraries?fbclid=IwAR1jwrzcSXtVo0yUV1EACzxSk_X7XeDg6wV6n8SipYlbrH6aVBguVRGZ150
It is specific to NZ in some respects, but the really interesting stuff is about the divergence in approach to public libraries in different parts of the world. I’m pleased to say that while Auckland Universirty has behaved appallingly (a friend lost her job in their closures which makes it personal), Auckland Council is taking a much more enlightened approach, building a bunch of beautiful new libraries and funding a huge range of library-based services.
I am of the “ necessary civic space” camp! What the article lays out his similar to what we have been going through in the United States. And our less than illustrious leaders just cut more funding for libraries.
😦 … further disempowering those already disadvantaged. Grrrr.
I love the library. I have always loved the library. As a kid, I would bring home as many books as I could carry, and always read above my age. In fact, I remember the librarian calling my mother at one point to tell her that I had been browsing in the adult section and that my mother should deal with that. My mother did – she told the librarian to mind her own business and then told me I could read whatever books I wanted, so long as they weren’t dirty books. These days, I go to the library most Friday afternoons and take out a bunch of books for the week, and I’m always surprised by how many people (both young and old) are in the library on a Friday afternoon. What with the internet and digital readers, it’s amazing that “real” books are still so popular.
Oh, I am laughing. There must be at least one librarian “informant“ at every library :-). I love the Friday afternoon buzz you describe. I guess I’ve never stopped to notice the busy times at my local library. But it encourages me that real books still have a place. I do think they are different than the digital additions. And as long as people continue to read, it gives me hope for humanity.
Bravo Kirstine. I’ve always enjoyed reading, books, and libraries, but left the fold until my 30s. Now I spend many a night wrapped up in a book. You made reading and books sound rather cool, or maybe I’m just a little bookish too. 🙂
Oh, I hope I do make it sound cool! It is:). And I love that you’ve come back into the fold. So many of us enjoy them and I think it keeps the world sane that bookworms maintain this quiet pursuit.
Yes, books are a nice way to retreat from the world into the land of imagination.
Mmm, I can maybe see a statue of you out the front of your local library dear lady. Truly a saint even if you get ‘shushed’ in the excitement of finding another great book in the library of life 😀
I’ll always regret the day that some idiot taught me how to speed read. I read all of Lord Of The Rings in a day. There isn’t anything that I can disappear into, get right into and enjoy because its all over too soon. And don’t get me started on the ‘digital age’, it most certainly doesn’t have that ‘feeling’ of a library 😀
Maybe I should just stick to writing my life as you do, at least it takes a loooong time to complete 😀
Great post dear lady, may that smell of ink, paper and adventure always cheer you on 😀
Ooh. Would that statue be entitled: “bookish and bonkers?”😆 my youngest is quite a speedy reader also. As am I, but I force myself to slow down for the very reason do you mention. I want to savor the words and the rhythm. And I agree with you-the Kindle edition oof abook is nothing like holding the real thing in your hands and hearing the pages turn.
😀 No, it would be titled ‘Brilliant or Bust’ or maybe say ‘Give me your tired, your unbound, your torn pages yearning to breathe free’ 😀