Liking the library


I don’t remember a time when going to the library was not an important and yet routine part of my family’s life.

Important — because we had neither the money nor the storage space for all the books my parents wanted to read.

Routine — because “going to the library,” like buying groceries, changing the linen and washing the dishes was built into the rhythm of our lives.

Saturday, after the chores had been done around the house, we were packed into the car and driven to the library. The Army camp in which we lived had a small library and many of the books were donated by the men and women who lived on the base. Because a fair number of the men had married while in England and brought their wives back to Canada and a goodly number of the families had been posted to England or Germany many of the donated books had been bought in (or shipped from) England. I was deposited in the “for young children” nook which was packed full of books written for English schoolchildren.

While I was sitting, enraptured, in the niche set aside for young children my older sister was picking out books she wanted to read and then arguing with the librarian (or, more accurately, one of the women who either volunteered or was paid very little to run the library) as to whether they were “suitable” for a girl her age. Meanwhile my mother and my father would have each struck out for their favourite sections of the building.

After an hour or so mom or dad would gather us all up, we would check out our books and head back home. Where over the course of the next week we would not only read the books we had picked out we would check out everyone else’s books.

Later, when we had moved from the Army camp to a medium-sized city, we checked out the various branches of the local library. My father walked by one branch of the library every day as he went to work, and my sister walked past another on her way to school. Since this was before the Internet took off, Saturday became the day when my mother would drop me off at the best “research” branch of the library to do my homework while she ran the weekly errands. I would work for several hours at one of those long wooden library tables until mom returned and then she and I would spend a pleasant hour or so in the stacks before going home with our trove.

During the years that I studied and worked in academia the library continued to be the building that held the books that I couldn’t afford and didn’t have room to store. Without the library I couldn’t do my research. I lived for much of the year within a few minutes walk of a number of major research libraries. Over the years my respect for the skills of librarians flowered. The completion of both of my graduate degrees required years of research, much of which would have taken longer (or been fruitless) without their assistance.

Now I am once again living year round in my home in a small city in Canada. One of the things that I expected to miss was access to a good library system. Yet today I found myself standing in the middle of main branch of our local library and thinking (and almost saying out loud) “I LIKE our library.”

The local library is more accessible than it ever was before. It is physically accessible to those who were once unable to negotiate its stairs and narrow entrances. It is virtually accessible to anyone who has get onto the internet. I can browse the stacks from home and request that the books I am interested in be set aside. Much of the library’s reference section is available online and so I can still read many of the academic journals in my field.

The library is also more lively than it was years ago. There is large, colourful, and welcoming section for children and for teenagers. There are comfortable chairs for people, old and young, who simply want to sit and read. There are computers and internet access for people who cannot afford either. There are librarians who will help people set up the resumes that they will soon print out on the library printer. There is a little coffee/fruit/pastry stand. People all around me were having fun, enjoying themselves, happy to be in the library.

I stood there for a moment and thought, “this is the center of my community.” People go to the library to learn how to apply for jobs, they go to learn new skills, they go to watch movies, take part in book clubs, and to meet people.

In my town the library has, in many ways, replaced the church as the center of the community life.

6 thoughts on “Liking the library

  1. Our local library is the same way, and I love that aspect of it (diversity, center of the community).

    Plus, I've read 257 books (so far) since I started patronizing them 13 months ago. Discovered a host of new authors I like too! Yay, libraries!!

  2. I find libraries great for trying out new authors. Amaryllis has pointed to me some novelists I was unfamiliar with and because of the library it cost me nothing to check them out.

    I'd be interesting in knowing which books, which authors and what you thought about them. Do you put reviews on your site and I have just missed them?

  3. And mmy has returned the favor!

    Libraries, where would we be without them?

    My father was a member of the board for our town library when I was a kid, from its first home in a tiny set of rooms in the basement of the town hall. I remember my childhood as involving large amounts of hanging around in libraries. I got a library card when I was six, one of the first in town. The cards were numbered in order of issue, and for years librarians would be impressed when I presented my “Number 38.”

    My father was instrumental in getting the town to build a new library, which seemed beautifully spacious to me when it opened. I visited there recently, though, and was amazed at how cluttered it seemed; of course, libraries have much more “stuff” in them these days. My mother and sister are frequent visitors, and they tell me that the place is always hopping, with programs and resources for a town population that's much more diverse than when I grew up. The town really needs a new building, or at least an expansion, but money's tight and politics are contentious, like everywhere else these days.

    When I learned to ride a bike, I'd ride to the library every Saturday. When I got my driver's license, the first solo trip I took was to the larger library in the next town over. (We shall pass lightly over the graze that I put in the paintwork of my father's car as I pulled out.)

    I love my local library; I'm there enough to be on first-name terms with the staff and have my regular corner of the “hold” shelf. And in connection with that, let me say that if anything could make me love libraries more, it's interlibrary loan.

    My daughter used to volunteer as an aide for the kids' summer reading program, and got her first real job as a library page.

    Well, you seemed to have sparked a reminiscent mood. But the public library is the cornerstone of civilization, as far as I'm concerned. As the sign on the desk says, “Cutting libraries during a recession is like closing hospitals during an epidemic.” A point with which my father– a Depression-era child of a poor family, first in his family to go to college– would have understood very well.

    And I could go on recommending favorite authors all day long.

  4. In my town the library has, in many ways, replaced the church as the center of the community life.

    I don't know about my town, but, over the past year or so, I think the library has replaced the church as the center of my spiritual life to some extent. I've come to view libraries as some sort of sacred space. I've said this elsewhere, but I've never been in a church without a library attached – and I've never been in a library that had a church attached…

  5. @Laiima: “slap hand to forehead” — I just didn't think to check out your reviews on LibraryThing. Really. I was just in blogger not LT mode.

    I don't crosspost all my LT reviews here — just the long and (I hope) thoughtful ones. Some of the LT reviews are only a sentence or two long. And some of them are pretty scathing.

    Some of the ones I crosspost are also quite “adapted” since I presume that other LT members are a slightly different audience that the readers of this blog.

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