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.