“I have found the most valuable thing in my wallet is my library card.”—Laura Bush
It’s been a while since I had a library card. As a marker of books and dog earer of pages, my habits hardly classify me as an ideal library patron. Not to mention the last time I visited a library five years ago in Pensacola, a particularly nasty librarian accused me of losing a book that I know I returned (and was further assured of when I never found it during my subsequent three moves.) It was the young adult book The Summer of My German Soldier; I was researching to write about American concentration camps.
Another reason I’ve steered clear of libraries is that I’m a germaphobe when it comes to holding something that unknown persons or number of persons have held in unknown locations and in unknown hygienic conditions. And, let’s face it, if there’s one thing you learn early in life, it’s that libraries—really any place with books—attract weird people who seem too preoccupied with either learning or pursuing their fandom to practice basic hygiene regimens. (A bit off the topic, but perhaps not by much: Laura was reading a second-hand book the other night [Tinkers by Paul Harding, if you must know] when she turned the page only to be sprinkled with what appeared to be dried cupcake batter—either that or powdered sugar from the top of a funnel cake. One can never quite tell with these things, and Laura refused to taste it to find out.)
Another reason I’ve steered clear of libraries is that I’m a germaphobe.
Still, two weeks ago, Laura and I decided to go to the local library just to look around. Like the bums we are, we stopped first at the DVD section and filled our arms with movies starring Meryl Streep and Elvis—like the discriminating movie watchers that we are.
Laura’s tour of the library ended when she discovered adult coloring books and colored pencils at a table, presumably the library’s service to bored chaperones or stressed parents. I set off to peruse the other shelves while she set to coloring an ornate fish. By the time I got back to her half an hour later, she had managed not only to finish coloring the fish, but also to creatively cover a crude word and two anatomically vulgar pictures etched on the pages by either a perverted adult or horny teenage boy.
Though largely taken for granted, libraries hold an inescapable appeal. Everything is free (providing, of course, you return things on time.*) Can you think of many other experiences quite so rewarding as walking in empty handed and strolling out with a bundle of items, all free. No gimmicks. No membership fees. No two-hour sales pitch. No hidden agendas. No background check. Just free stuff. (I know, I know—taxes, blah, blah.)
But just think of the possibilities presented in a library. There is nothing that cannot be discovered, no topic that cannot be explored at the library. No one laughs at your research of cures for toe nail fungus. Never is heard a discouraging word for those seeking to know the mating habits of porcupines. Not one librarian blinks an eye at a request to be shown to the section on ancient torture techniques.
The old cliches about the library opening new worlds is true. (It’s also true what one of my favorite authors, Michael Perry, said in response to so much information being available to our generation: “Nowadays, ignorance must be willfully tended, like a stumpy mushroom under a bucket.”) Having a library card is really like stuffing the world in your wallet.
“Libraries really are wonderful. They’re better than bookshops, even. I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts.”― Jo Walton
Chances are, you remember your first library card. For most of us, it was the first plastic card that would get us something for nothing (at least for a little while). We tucked it in our pocket or wallet, our proudest possession, a simultaneous responsibility and honor. We had arrived, members of an elite club of knowledge seekers (or of those hoping to score free movies and internet access.)
“When I got [my] library card, that was when my life began.”― Rita Mae Brown
I practically lived in the library as a teenager. It was to me what the mall was to most girls my age. Though I can’t claim to have been reading classics (except 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which probably led to my fascination with all things oceanic, especially the giant squid), I enjoyed the eclectic—researching for my World War II novel; ordering black and white Humphrey Bogart movies through interlibrary loans; feeding my obsession with Ben Affleck; learning how babies are born; and, my favorite, gaping at each page of the Guinness Book of World Records.
The librarians knew me, if not by name then by face. I remember the tall man with the gold chain around his neck. He looked more like a drug dealer than a librarian. But he always smiled when he saw me coming, and he spoke gently when I laid my stack of books on the counter and often suggested other things for me to read or put on hold other movies that I might enjoy. There were other librarians, too, who acted as tour guides through the world of books, gatekeepers to the cities of knowledge.** And after all these years, I’ve never forgotten them.
I even liked the noises of the library: the beep of the card scanning; the click of plastic as the librarians opened the VHS boxes and closed them; the rustle of pages turning; the creak of the circular, metal DVD towers being rotated; and of course, the national sound of libraries everywhere—sssshhhh.
The smells stay with me still. Closing my eyes, I can imagine the faint odor of wet carpet and scotch tape. The unmistakeable perfumes of old books and the sour aroma of paper. The garlic and sewer fragrance of the homeless guys surfing the web. The plastic smell of book covers and DVD cases.
Though long estranged from this institution I once inhabited, two weeks ago when the librarian placed the library card in my hand, I felt something familiar.
“It’s amazing how a library card can make you feel grounded, like you belong to something,” Laura said as we toted our mounds of DVDs, CDs, and one lonely book to the car.
And I think that’s what it was: I had found my way back to the place that for me, once upon a time, felt very much like home.
“A library is a good place to go when you feel unhappy, for there, in a book, you may find encouragement and comfort. A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your question answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people—people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.”― E.B. White
*”The world´s largest fine for an overdue library book is $345.14 (£203.29), the amount owed at two cents a day for the poetry book Days and Deeds checked out of Kewanee Public Library, Illinois, USA in April 1955 by Emily Canellos-Simms. Although the book was due back 19 April 1955, Emily found it in her mother´s house 47 years later and presented the library with a check for overdue fines.”—from The Guinness Book of World Records
**Libraries have been around for a long time and let’s hope they stick around. (Ray Bradbury said, “Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.”) Check out the restoration going on in one of the world’s oldest libraries.