Growing up, the library was my sanctuary. I practiced writing my name for hours to attain the coveted status of my own library card. My mom would hold me up to hand the librarian my own card and I would watch her scan my pile of books under the squiggly infrared reader. Once a week, I would take ballet classes there, dressed in my pink leotard and
slippers while twirling off balance across the room with bad turn out. Summer nights my sister and I would put on our pajamas, grab our blankets and watch a movie sprawled out with dozens of other kids on the floor. That was the best because it was like living out my fantasy from the book Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, where two siblings who run away and live in the New York Metropolitan of Art. If you haven’t read this book, I suggest getting it immediately, even if you no longer need permission to runaway from home.
I was a curious kid and an avid reader, so the mere thought that I could pick up any book to bring home was astonishing. I spend hours reading about how to raise a hamster, do magic tricks and went through both the classic and contemporary Nancy Drew Series by the time I was 7. In 7th grade, I stayed up all night finishing Gone With the Wind and that wouldn’t be the last time I watched the night sky turn from inky black to faded gray, and finally streaky pink, before finally putting down my book. In high school, when one of the kids I tutored knew more about the Rock of Gibraltar than I did, I drove my newly acquired car over to Center Street to research a few points to one up him at our next session.
In college, I would sometimes borrow a textbook for one of my classes from the library to save money and spend hours on the third floor, studying in the corner. In Grad School, I rented French language CDs and books on tape to make my hour commute into the city fly by. I remember sitting in the parking garage, listening to just a few more minutes to find out what happened at the end of the chapter before dashing into class.
My relationship with the library hasn’t only been one sided. More often than not, my books were late and I paid handsomely to borrow books without expiration dates. As a kid, my mom always had some loose change to pay the inevitable fines I’d rack up from 15 books all 3 days late, at a nickel a day. This became problematic as I got older and those fines got more expensive, eventually culminating in a $100 penalty when my car was broken into and my (their) French CDS were stolen. I might be the only American under 50 with a derogatory mark on their credit from a forgotten library book and too many forwarded addresses to catch it. I consider these fines to be a sort of payment for all the books I read for free. In today’s modern world, a beautifully organized store that let’s you borrow their wares, and not just their old merchandise but new beautiful items, is a bit of an anomaly.
Even as an adult, visiting the library still gives me that sense of awe. It feels like such a nerve center of any community. In San Francisco, we have the most beautiful public resource right across the street from City Hall. To me, those floors of books, magazines, DVDs, and CDs represent access. You don’t have to be rich to be able to read and learn about anything you want.
The library was the first place I felt my mind become fully engaged. The lingering boredom I had always felt in class when I finished my math problems early or read ahead in my history assignment, finally vanished. Now when I finished my classwork I could open up my library book and be completely transported out of my pedestrian classroom in small town America. Books gave me permission to dream and the will to believe I could really go places. This led me to work hard and excel, something my working class parents had been trying to instill in me the moment I signed my childish signature on that plastic card.
My borrowed library books have trekked all over the world from Europe to Asia, Africa and South America. I would scan the shelves for the most recent travel guide, renewing my borrowed books overseas to free up some money for beer or an upgraded hostel room. I attribute my love of cooking to the amazing selection of food related books in the Santa Rosa Library which sparked my desire to know more about non-GMO and local foods. I’ve learned to make cheese, brew beer, raise chickens and keep bees, all from books I’ve checked out from the local library.
Libraries bring people together. Grad students sit next to homeless people and ride the elevators with mothers and their squirming children. Kids can pull books off the shelf about anything that interests them and sit cross legged on the floor listening to librarian do funny voices to Where the Wild Things Are People struggling with unemployment can surf the web looking for job listings and perfect their resumes. If you are cold and have nowhere else to go, you can duck into a library to escape. Young mothers limp with exhaustion can commiserate with other moms in low voices while their kids flip through picture books in the corner. A brilliant poet can share her work with a community that values her words.
“I have always imagined that Paradise would be a kind of library”.
-Jorge Luis Borges