Wednesday, June 10

Dewey Decimal and All That

I am not a librarian, nor do I play one on television.  

I am, however, a bonafide library geek.   This will come as no surprise to my friend Susan, who is, in fact, a librarian, and also happens to be my twin-separated-at-birth.  

Libraries produce in me a sense of luxuriance.  They transport me to a simpler time, when shelves that seemed endless with colored spines set me to reeling.  They speak of unhurried time, curling up in a chair or a corner, free of worries--a quality hard to come by these days, as well as in adulthood.

Today, I lost that for a moment.  I was jarred.  And in those moments of imbalance, I remembered.  Funny thing, space.  Space created, space filled.  Amazing.

My dad used to tell me a story about the library he went to as he was growing up.  He made a plan that he would read the whole library--I assume it was a neighborhood library in Detroit where he grew up--starting at the beginning of A, and reading right through to Z.  It was a challenge.  I don't know how far he got, I don't remember that part of the story.  But he sure tried.  And he loved recounting the effort.  So did I.

I grew up in a library, getting my first library card as soon as I was old enough to write my full name--that was the requirement.  By that time, I had spent so much time at the library that achievement of that goal was like the fulfillment of a dream.  It meant I was "big", perhaps more than any other milestone.  I knew all the librarians by name, and they all knew my name and my mother's name--it seemed like a heavenly, peaceful, all-knowing occupation.   It was quiet there. And there was always enough time.  I watched the high school pages pushing their slate-colored wheeled cars around, and wished I were older.

I remember my first library card well.  It was a small white card, about 2 1/2" x 3 1/2", typed by hand on a typewriter behind the tall blond wood librarian's counter, and it slid into a small open-ended manila envelope of the same size, with a small thumb hole at the top for easy card removal.  I had it throughout my childhood--it's probably still somewhere at my mother's house, she saves everything.

I remember the children's library.  It was the best part, with its low 50's spindle-legged wooden tables, and its endless books...the visual memory is overwhelming, begging me to leave this writing right here, right now, get out my colored pencils, and draw the library of my youth, with its walls of windows looking out on a garden in which one could read, and with....sigh...its wonderful children's librarian.  Her desk was....right there.  She was wonderful, with her colored paper bookmarks, each with a list of suggested books for different ages.  I always longed for the color beyond my level.  And so I read.  She always had a smile, a book club, an encouragement, a scavenger hunt, a dead-on book suggestion, a joyful enthusiasm for any child who loved to read.  A knowledge of children's books that so few have, sort of like the conversation about the "shoes books" in You've Got Mail (which is, of course, a remake of The Shop Around the Corner", which is a great film.).  Island of the Blue Dolphins. A  Door in the Wall.  Beverly Cleary.  Half Magic.  Maia Wojciechowska.  A Wrinkle in Time.

In fifth grade, I did what any child who had spent six years in the library does.  I volunteered to work in the school library, shelving books and checking them out.  It was the best job I've ever had.  It made such sense.

I got older.  I ventured out of the children's library into the reference section (I told you I was a library geek), where I pored over "Who's Who" in the way that we now read People Magazine.  When a letter came in the mail for my dad, inviting him to be in Who's Who, and he threw it away saying "what a piece of junk", I was appalled.  I lingered over the tall round metal rotating racks that held the only paperback books in the library at that time.  Somehow they seemed less legitimate.  I became a voracious consumer of biographies, landing me squarely in the 900's (921's, I'm thinking?), the other end of the library, as far from childhood as one could go.

Well, these days, I'm working  at home, a task made more challenging by the persistent whispers (okay, shouts) of dishes and dirty clothes.  So I decided to go work at the local library.  I would spend a luxurious five, six, hours there.  Settle in.  Look at a few books, soak in the library-ness of it all, and get some work done.  I was excited. 

When I arrived, I found that all of the parking in the area of the library, including in the small parking lot immediately adjacent, had two hour parking meters (I live in the suburbs, it's not a place you'd easily take public transportation).   

It struck me--hard--something akin to the feelings that people describe when they find that church doors are locked: confusion, outrage, disbelief.  I was flooded with questions.  How does anyone settle in in one hour and forty-five minutes?  How will children in this community ever know that feeling of staying, exploring, reading as long as they want? How many people come to the library expecting to visit, and end up leaving because they don't have quarters in their pockets?  How can it be a home to people who want to do research?  Anyone knows that you can't get much done in less than two hours.  What if I want to snuggle into one of those soft chairs and read magazines, and what if I drift off?  What if I'm working on my computer and my meter is up, and I'm being warned not to leave any personal possessions alone on the tables?

A library I went to recently made you do all but give them your first born child in order to use their computers.  Another warns you that you cannot use the bathrooms in the children's department, those are for children only--meaning that if you are with your child in that section, you would need to remove them from their play, from their books, from that which interests them, and take them with you to the adult restrooms on the far side of the building.  I have met some good children's librarians, but have met many more who appear to be bothered by the presence of children, annoyed by questions, and resentful at the expectation that they will have an inventory of expressions beyond the scowl and the heaving sigh.  A third finally got wireless internet access, but requires that you speak directly with the reference librarian to get an outlet "unlocked" if you want to plug your computer in--the outlets are otherwise covered.  The infamous rules enforcing quiet seem to have all but vanished--it's been a good 20 years since I've heard a parent say "We speak softly in libraries".

It's no wonder that these days, I often have trouble keeping track of my now fancy magnetic-stripped library card, I routinely wind up paying late fees because I somehow "can't" make it back to the library, and that many days, I simply forget it's there as a resource.

I know that libraries, like all social and/or cultural institutions, are struggling financially.  Libraries have closed, shortened their hours, expanded their offerings.  
I know that, at least among members of my generation, we bemoan the frequent disconnection of children from books.  "Kids don't read anymore!", we say.  

Are we enticing them?  Not with video games, not with "choose your book, we have to get to soccer", but with the luxury that some of us knew, with the excitement of subterfuge as they select books that they will read, as I did, under the covers with a flashlight.  These are things I can only dream of for my daughter.

You may say that I'm living in the past.  And you may be right.  

But there are a few jewels there.  

These days, I'm more of a 100's, 200's, 300's kinda gal.  My daughter is more of a 500's person.  To each her own.

Two hours in a library?  Give me a break.

1 comment:

Bev Sykes said...

I absolutely LOVED this entry and related to a lot of it. Sadly, I have lost the "library habit," which is all the sadder because I live 3 blocks from our library. I lived in the library when I was growing up.