public libraries

going to our public library was a ritual for me when i was a kid growing up in a suburban new jersey town.  almost weekly, either parent or the parent of one of my friends would drive a carload of us kids to the (what seemed to me then to be) sprawling free public library campus, which also housed a version of "safety town" - a mock town where busloads of kids could spend an afternoon learning about traffic safety from "officer friendly."  on the green lawn out front sat two bronzed figures back to back, one engrossed in reading and the other saying something over his back to his companion.  sometimes i would sit next to them with a book of my own while i waited for my ride or others to finish up inside.

i never left the building with any less than the maximum number of books you could take out at once.  if it wasn't an armload, then i clearly had wasted a visit.  slowly, i would venture from the children's section into the main section of the library, and this would bring me indescribable joy.  once i got the hang of the dewey decimal system, i would look up topics in the card catalog just to prove i could find it.  astronomy, botany, civil war, women's rights, mythology... the card catalog was like a choose-your-own-adventure story that never led to the same place twice.  up stairs and down the elevator, books in hand.  no matter where the journey led, however, i always landed back in the far corner of the children's section.  there, the tables were round and wide and could accommodate books of all shapes and sizes.  i liked to spread them out - a practice in which i still i engage - like a painter assembling her paints before delving into them to construct that afternoon's perfect story portrait.  i think about the multilayered narrative that capucine weaves in this video and feel a kinship to what might have been going on in her mind to bring those threads together.

i felt some of the same energy and magic when i wandered into a different public library earlier this afternoon.  i hadn't been inside one in a very long time.  i was instantly aware of how unfamiliar this environment was to me, even as the sensibility of the concrete structure was inviting.  i had become so used to working in academic libraries, coffee shops, and my office, that i found myself unaccustomed to the ongoing interactions between librarian and the diverse population of patrons; the dialogues about whether the printers were working and where a mom could find some good graphic novels for her 11-year-old.  the librarian had responses for these and many other queries.

i took a seat at a rectangular table on the second floor, presumably near the young adult literature section.  across me was a bookshelf full of graphic novels.  just typing that sentence makes me realize how things and times have changed since i was last actively present in a library - that is, in a library to "use" the library.  a bookshelf full of graphic novels didn't exist even 6 or 7 years ago when i spent nearly every week in or near a library while collecting data for my dissertation with a group of adolescent boys.   librarians, often women, act as sage guides, patient listeners, and occasionally ornery public servants whose buttons have been pushed one too many times.

for a while, i shared my table with a red-headed boy who looked to be no more than 9.  he worked studiously on what appeared to be a math assignment - i'm assuming math based on the pyramid made up of triangles on the worksheet he was writing on.  a group of slightly older girls walked up the stairs together and, leaning on each other like teenage girls tend to do (literally and metaphorically), made their way to the back where the young adult romance and mystery books were.  their dialogue was about which book to check out next, amidst giggles - i probably wouldn't be entirely off base if i guessed they were going toward the twilight display...

there was one other reason i kept bringing my haul back to the children's section of my hometown public library: the giant lion that was propped up against the corner.  i probably couldn't get away with it now, but even as a teenager, i would sit and lean against that lion and read for hours on end.  i was comfortable, in a familiar surrounding, where i had relatively autonomy and authority to manage my own textual explorations. 

i began to remember some of those lessons this afternoon as i watched library patrons, old and mostly young, make their way through this structure.  card catalogs have been replaced with computer kiosks and the library cards and books are read by barcode, but the stuffed animals and large tables remain... signaling a welcome to a new generation of inquiring minds and adventure-seeking storytellers.


and on a happy note, relief for the free library of philadelphia ...  for now...

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