I went to the library this week to pick up a couple of books I had put on hold (one of them, Weekday Vegetarians, which you recommended last week). Because I read mostly e-books these days, I don’t get to the library as often as I used to.
The library is one of my all-time favorite places. And I don’t mean the particular library in my town (that one is actually fairly dismal). I mean Capital L Library. This goes back to my childhood, where I would spend entire days there. The library of my childhood was newly built when I was old enough to bike across town to it. In that very 70’s aesthetic, it had a sunken center section with a groovy fountain. I felt like I knew every square inch of that place: the encyclopedias, the microfiche, and especially the children’s section. I worked my way through every single Beverly Cleary book, the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, and many others.
I could be wrong, but I don’t think the YA genre was really a thing back then, and when I hit fifth or sixth grade, I began to struggle to find books. I started wandering over to the adult fiction section, but after trying a few books that just weren’t right for my age, I remember shyly asking the children’s librarian for help. She walked me over to a shelf and recommended the Beany Malone series by Lenora Mattingly Weber. This was the 70s, and the beginning of the Beany Malone series is set in the 40s, but I loved it! Very satisfyingly, it follows Beany from high school through marriage and children. And there are several spin-off series that I love just as much. I could never get any of my friends interested in it, but I recently reread one, and I think they still hold up!
In the summer, I would bike over to the part, hit tennis balls against the wall for an hour, and then spend the rest of the day at the library. As I got older, I researched, wrote (and even typed, for 25 cents an hour) every report and term paper there.
I practically lived in the library in college but sort of forgot about them after graduation. Having kids reminded me again. For many years, when the kids were small, we would routinely have 20-30 books checked out at a time. (Chloe whipped through them so fast back then.)
And because the little library in our town is so pathetic, we began to visit libraries in neighboring towns. The Thousand Oaks Library is beautiful in this very modern way, with huge fish tanks in the children’s area (Jennifer Chiaverini used to be a librarian there!). And the Camarillo Library is a literal work of art and has a huge pirate ship in the children’s section that was built by the set designer from Pirates of the Caribbean. One of my favorite things about it are signs on empty shelves that read, “Reserved for books not yet written.”
I started to think about this because our old library is going to be torn down soon and a beautiful new one will be built in its place. I am so excited about this! The children in this town deserve a beautiful space they feel free to spend whole days in. And maybe I will get out of my home office and set up in the new library for work now and then.
I remember reading somewhere that one of the most important things about libraries is that it’s the only place where no one is expected to spend money. That makes me love them even more.
I already know that you love libraries, but tell me more.
I don’t remember the first time I went to a library, but I do remember one particular visit on a winter’s night in the early 1970s. My older brother had basketball practice, and because my dad was in Vietnam, my mom didn’t have any choice but to pack all three of us kids in the station wagon and head over to the gym. After she dropped my brother off, she drove me and my younger brother to the Kings Park Library on Burke Lake Road. I would have been in second grade, and I already loved to read more than anything else in the world. What I’ve never forgotten is pulling an illustrated edition of Little Women off the shelf and thumbing through it in search of pictures. I wanted to read it so badly, but I wasn’t quite ready. I could decipher the words, but the meanings were complicated. I remember pressing my nose into its pages and for the first time ever smelling that wonderful old book perfume. (Later, I would learn that the smell is from an organic compound found in paper called lignin. I’m sure there’s a candle you can buy that smells just like it.)
That’s probably my most distinct library memory. We moved around so much that there’s no single library that has a long term claim on my imagination. I do remember the layout of the Woodbrook Elementary School library, which I frequented from fourth to sixth grade. I can still see the shelves where the Childhood of Famous Americans biographies were lined up (Julia Ward: Girl of Old New York, Walter Reed: Boy Who Wanted to Know) and the corner where the novels were shelved.
I still find it hard to wrap my head around the fact that public libraries–these places where you can borrow books and are trusted to bring them back a few weeks later–actually exist, and that by and large the system works. And these days, libraries are lending more than just reading material. Some libraries lend tools, including sewing machines and hammers, others allow you to check out telescopes, jumper cables, rubber stamps and cake pans.
Like you, I have many fond memories of taking my kids to the library. When Jack was a toddler, before Will was born, I used to take him after dinner to the library near where we lived in north Raleigh, where he could explore the usually empty children’s room. Once he tired himself out, we’d snuggle up in a bean bag and read our favorite books. At that time, we both loved the Max and Ruby books by Rosemary Wells–I think I can still recite Bunny Money and Max’s Chocolate Chicken by heart.
Later, when Will came on the scene, we went to the little Parkwood Library in Durham, which was housed in an old, 1960s strip mall. It had almost zero charm, aesthetically speaking, but we loved it. It was small, and the boys could wander around to their hearts’ content without my ever losing sight of them. Later, the city built a brand new, much larger library a few blocks away and closed the old Parkwood Library. I missed our homely little library with its weekly story hours and kind librarians who understood that sometimes little boys forgot to use indoor voices.
The other day I was walking into the gym at the same time a number of younger families were leaving the swimming pool. It took me back to those years where my life was all about taking care of young children, and how every outing had to be carefully planned lest it end in disaster. Did I have enough diapers, snacks, sunscreen, wipes? Could I get back home before the baby fell asleep in the car (because if the baby fell asleep in the car, he was going to wake up the minute I got home, and that was it, nap time was over)? Was I crazy to think you might be able to stop off at the grocery store on the way home without it being an absolute clown car of an outing? (Yes, I was that crazy; yes, it was almost always a huge mistake).
But the library was always easy. Everyone was always excited to go, and they rushed to their favorite spots as soon as we got to the children’s room. There was a fish tank and a train table. There was a life-size Curious George and a water fountain just the right height for little kids, and everyone could drink as much water as they wanted as long as no one was waiting in line behind them. There were books-on-tape and audio CDs. It was thirty minutes of paradise, and then you got to go home and read and read and read. And none of it cost a dime.
There are parts of taking care of little kids that I don’t miss at all. But I miss taking Jack and Will to the library. I really do.