About a library

“I want you to write the blog post about the library,” my dear friend B said to me yesterday.

Last week I told you and B that I found myself wandering—and, let’s be honest, a bit low on funds. And instead of going to the bookstore where I knew I couldn’t buy anything, I found myself on solid ground at my public library. (That’s the main branch, in the photo above.)

I was stunned, literally stunned, at what wonderful places libraries can be. I felt occupied by exclamation points, like Ginsberg’s supermarket in California: there were whole families shopping for books! Shelves and shelves of books! People from all walks of life! Passes for area museums! Movies and TV shows on DVD! A reading area for the kids!

My daughters got their first library cards this week, and though neither of them can even read just yet, it warmed my heart to see them grabbing books off the shelves, then sitting quietly on the alphabet block carpet and turning pages. They made for the reading area as if they were at home. They’ve been to libraries before, but with their cards, I got to introduce them to the magic of libraries: so many books to read, take away, return, and then, the miracle: you can get more!

At their best, libraries strike me as an exercise in loving generously: one that I can only begin to compare to my mother’s love. My mother loves so abundantly that if you love peanut M&M’s, giving you a handful of them is not enough: she must buy you the entire 5-pound yellow bag. This is a literal, not a symbolic, example.

My library visit made me wonder: why in the world do I not visit public libraries more often? For that matter, why have I chosen to haunt bookstores, (mostly) new and used, independent and corporate, over libraries? Why would I rather buy my books, rather than borrow them? And now this tendency even strikes me as miserly, particularly in comparison to the trust and abundance of libraries’ (and yes, my mother’s) goodwill: I don’t want to have to give books back. I want to be able to keep them all to myself, forever and ever if I want. With apologies to Marxists, it’s not Scrooge’s piles of wealth which are the real problem, right? It’s his unwillingness to share.

Well, why not hang out in libraries? There’s the too-quiet atmosphere, for one thing. In cafes, I like working around others who are working. But I want to be able to talk to them occasionally, too, maybe even to ask what they’re reading. I want to be able to listen to music, sometimes even music that the baristas choose for me from their iPods. I want an iced mocha that I can nurse and an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie that I can nibble. Give me a piano that an earnest teenager will ventolin or albuterol occasionally strum. Since we’re in the Pacific Northwest, give me warmly painted walls, and lots and lots of windows for natural light. Give me babies who will peek at me over their mothers’ shoulders, and a space where toddlers can wield their crayons freely. No cubicles. Give me tables, lots of tables, ‘neath the reading lights above. Don’t fence me in.

Libraries are not my preferred workspaces, and for a long time, especially during graduate school, libraries meant research libraries. They did not feel like spaces designed for pleasure and quiet revelation (or revolution); they were spaces designed for hushed, solemn work. Gorgeous, but intimidating and uncomfortable.

But why in the world have I not visited libraries more often? See, if I had just discovered libraries, if I hadn’t come from a family of voracious readers and librarians, that would be one thing. But if you’ve been reading along for a while now, you already know that the written word is earth, air, water, fire for my soul.  And I went to the library all the time when I was a little girl. Summer reading clubs were a way to keep track of books I had read, sure, but they were icing on the cake. Moreover, one of my aunts was a children’s librarian in San Francisco. Her husband, my uncle, was also a librarian at the Western Addition branch there, and was a major force behind its Japanese language collection. And my dad was a librarian, the head of Circulation, here.

Marveling at the wonderfulness of my public library, I thought: Oh, shit. Is that why I’ve avoided libraries?

For a month I’ve been working on a project which involves my dad. So everything, even grilled cheese sandwiches, feels like it’s circling back to him. Characters in Colson Whitehead’s amazing novel The Intuitionist are nervous in elevators because elevators remind them of coffins. By comparison, I wonder if I’ve avoided libraries because their silence reminds me of the silence of uncomfortable introspection, or death.

But here’s a clue. I am writing this entry the night before Father’s Day, a holiday that’s been difficult for me since 1984.  (More difficult memories: I wrote a poem for my dad a few weeks before he died, and my uncle read it as part of my dad’s eulogy.) And this week at the library I was looking up Zadie Smith’s book of essays, and reached over to get some scratch paper. I stared at the yellowing piece of paper for a minute, with some nostalgia and even love. For scratch paper, my library still uses old index cards from card catalogs. “Research outlook,” the title on my card said.

Publication year on the card: 1983. That’s the year before my dad died.

Maybe that title’s a command.

P.S. Coming up this week: revisions of earlier assignments. A break from death, for us all. If you’ve been reading from the beginning, many thanks.


  1. Pst! If you make a blog button (a 200 pixel by 200 pixel image) I will put it on my blog to link back to yours!

  2. Oh, T, you ask so many good questions about libraries. Thank you. I have been thinking about these things — especially owning versus borrowing books — for quite a while. For me, however, things are a bit reversed. I live in a tiny town with no good bookstores. I rely on the (amazing) U of Wisconsin statewide system to deliver books to me. (And on my tiny little campus the books are literally delivered to my office by the friendly librarian.) I have become the library’s “best customer” and I often have to take extra bags to school to cart home the books. But the downside is that I don’t own as many books as my other English colleagues. One friend even commented about this (“huh, where are all your books?”) which made me feel both unsophisticated and poor. And yet the opportunity to read voraciously is exactly what the library enables. I really appreciate your thoughts and reflections. xo

    • Thanks for the thoughts and encouragement, Amy! There seems to be something about class and libraries that I haven’t worked out (through) yet, either–you’ll note that I was at the library at the beginning of the post because I didn’t have much (disposable) money at the time. That, plus the shorter hours of some of my library branches here (some do not open until noon, for example) make me wonder about library attendees and what the connection to class might be.

      The scholar in me wants to know, but in the meantime, the reader in me has just received 2 bags of books-on-hold, and is about to devour those happily. I’m starting with Julia Child’s My Life in France; so far, highly recommended. Hugs to you and R, and a pat for B!

  3. I love our libraries here! And as much as I love owning books, I try very hard to use the library as my first contact. Last summer I encouraged a friend from work to get her first library card (at age 55!) and she had a blast checking out and reading books all summer. I hope that you will continue to take your children to visit the library.

    • Wow, that’s great that you got your friend to get her library card! I went a little overboard with my books on hold and now I’ve got a ton of books that I might not be able to read before they’re due. The panic! For now, I’m enjoying Julia Child’s lovely and engaging memoir _My Life in France_.

  4. I’ve always thought that libraries were the greatest expression of the American ideal–here’s everything anyone has ever figured out, available for everyone, for free. Not locked up in some room in some castle, not in some aristocratic club, but for everyone.

    The first thing I do whenever I move, once I’ve got proof of address (and sometimes I’ve used a signed lease to do this) is get my library card. It’s what makes me feel like a citizen of my new town more than almost anything else.

    • I do love them, and I’ve been geeking out over those design magazines’ top 100 most beautiful libraries in the world. And of course, the Seattle Main Library is awesome. (don’t you miss it? bwahaha) But yes, what they represent is so much larger.

  5. I love the libraries too much…I tend to make large annual “donations”…although they call them “fines”.


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