“I always knew from that moment, from the time I found myself at home in that little segregated library in the South…I always felt, in any town, if I can get to a library, I’ll be OK.” –Dr. Maya Angelou[*]
As a child, I inhabited my hometown’s library. I swept through the familiar stacks, seeking books I hadn’t yet read or favorites to re-read. In the background, I could overhear my mother discussing my reading level with the children’s librarian. The same librarian hosted the story hour. She’d sit nearly surrounded by a semi-circle of children, showing us the pages as she slowly read them aloud. Afterwards, I could check out as many books as I could carry—and I frequently needed to tuck the stack under my chin to avoid dropping them.[†] I finished roughly half of the books before my mother drove us home. We were book lovers, so we went to the library as often as we could: After all, it felt like another home.
Of course, I found echoes of myself in books featuring other bookworms and the libraries in which they lost themselves, the librarians which they befriended. My favorite part of Robin McKinley’s Beauty (her version of the Beauty and the Beast tale) involved reading. This YA novel features a bookish heroine who marvels at the books she finds in the Beast’s library, some of which have not yet been written. Considering how many times and how long I’ve waited for sequels to be published, I’m confident that this magical library is a bookworm’s dream. In the Discworld series, however, it’s not only possible to find books that have yet to be written but also to travel through time and to different places through L-space (that is, library space).[‡] In some way, I’ve always felt this to be true of reading. How often had I found myself lost in book only to surprised when I became aware again of my actual surroundings? And these novels also include the Librarian of the Unseen University, a formerly human wizard who found his transformation into an orangutan advantageous to his career.[§] His willingness to help researchers (albeit in his unique fashion) is entirely in keeping with what I know of librarians, all of whom work hard to serve the public.[**]
The Power of Real Libraries
If libraries mean the world to a someone whose childhood was reasonably comfortable, imagine the difference they make to children with different backgrounds. Dr. Maya Angelou spoke of her first library as a soothing balm, the kind that helped her find her words again and her vocation. For another young woman, libraries acted as an equalizer. Although she could not afford to buy books the way her friends did, her free public library card permitted to read nonetheless. Even coming from a family that collected books, I know there’s many books I would not have read without this free access. And libraries don’t just hold books. Poet/filmmaker Greta Bellamacina shared that libraries provided a quiet place to study that her home lacked. Libraries provide safe places.
For these reasons, I feel dismay whenever I read about efforts to defund public libraries. Since I’d personally prefer that Fahrenheit 451 remain a work of fiction, I urge readers to get out and support our community libraries and fund groups that protect libraries. I would like my child to continue reading all those books eagerly, after story hour, the way I did. I’d like all children to have that second home to visit.
Have a favorite librarian or library story? Share in the comments section. Better yet, support your local library with a donation.
[*] Library, The New York Public. “Interview: How Libraries Changed Maya Angelou’s Life.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/the-new-york-public-library/interview-how-libraries-c_b_775980.html>.
[†] This librarian also ran the summer reading program, which I read for the way some kids train for sports.
[‡] Pratchett, Terry. Guards! Guards! New York: HarperTorch, 2001.
[§] Particularly when it comes to obtaining books from the top shelves.
[**] Although, their approach involves less implied violence than the Unseen University Librarian’s does.
Updated 10 April 2018.
4 thoughts on “Public Reading: For the Love of Libraries”
Ah yes, I loved Robin McKinley’s Beauty. I should revisit it one day.
Our town library had a little, chest-high glass fronted cabinet of vintage porcelain dolls in the back, which fascinated me almost as much as some of the books. I wish I had asked what their story was, but I don’t recall that I ever did–even when my mum was working there part-time. She used to print the posters advertising story hour, and once did them all for Enfield Public Library, leaving out the L in Public! Of course, spell-check didn’t catch that, and I thought it was hilarious.
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This version was one of my favorite retelling of the Beauty and Beast story, and it happily resides in my personal library. I must have checked it out a dozen times when I first discovered it in my hometown’s library.
I wonder if you could discover the story behind the dolls. Library seem to have so many interesting collections beyond books. I love stories about how spellchecker fails us so spectacularly–thanks for sharing.
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My small local library is in a network of libraries in the south-west of England and gives me access to nearly every title I search for. I love to buy books but without the library I wouldn’t be able to read as much or as widely as I can. I do appreciate your love for libraries – seems like they have something in common all over the world as a place of refuge and learning. Not so keen on the blippetty-blip of the self-service machines, but that’s another story.
Libraries generally are great for providing a quiet space in everyone’s life while simultaneously offering free access to a trove of resources.
Computer kiosks haven’t yet developed the charm of a card catalogue or a helpful librarian, have they?
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