It should come as no surprise to anyone that I’m a big fan of public libraries. I must have started going (or more accurately, my mother must have started taking me) fairly early in my life. I don’t even remember the first time I went to one. I do, however, remember my first “home” library. It was a large, white (ish) building probably built sometime in the 80s based on the architecture. The few windows were heavily tinted, so it was always dim inside, and it smelled fusty. I remember the children’s room being brighter, though whether it was better lit or simply more brightly decorated I couldn’t tell you now. I went every week when I was young. I remember exiting from semi-gloom into brilliant afternoon sunshine, delighted with a fresh haul and eager to dive into it. We would go with sturdy canvas bags to carry the books, and mine was always absolutely crammed. I could fit perhaps six to ten books in one bag, depending on whether they were paperbacks or hardcovers.
Choosing the books was the hard part, however. This was a relatively large public library – larger than most individual branches I’ve encountered since, anyway. It had a correspondingly large selection. I remember, once, sitting down in one of the back aisles of the children’s section in front of a whole series of books about different animals. There must have been at least a couple dozen of them. And there were so many I wanted to read! My mother typically let me browse as I wished while she did the same, only coming to look for me if I hadn’t shown up at the circulation desk to check out in the usual amount of time. So by the time she found me, I had pulled what seems like twenty of them in memory but might have been half that off the shelves. Dismayed, she had to explain to me that I could not check all of those out, and I would have to put most of them back. This was an exacting and laborious task for a seven-year-old, but my mother stood by patiently while I did it.
Some years later, a new branch of the county library opened up not five minutes from our home. The building was brand-new, bright, airy, spacious, and clearly intended for growth, since half the shelves were still empty. It was beautiful, but I never quite grew attached to it in the same way I did the old, dark, musty library I grew up with. It wasn’t my library. Still, I went there occasionally in my late teens, mostly during summer breaks when I was bored or stressed and didn’t know what to do with myself. The librarians were always pleased to see me. I gathered that most of their other teen volunteers were as much hindrance as help, and I was a shelving wonder – despite sometimes getting distracted by interesting-looking books. I even managed to help patrons find books on occasion, like the man looking for a nonfiction children’s book about space. I had just shelved a book there, so I was able to find the general section for him quickly, and felt quite pleased with myself.
Now, I’m fortunate to live in a large city with an extensive public library system. New York actually has three: one for Queens, one for Brooklyn, and one that covers the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island. At this point, I’ve visited more branches than I can readily count. The most memorable, unsurprisingly, is the iconic central branch of the New York Public Library, on 42nd Street. It’s huge and beautiful, so old and so well-traveled (well-loved) that many of the steps have been worn hollow with the passage of feet. Most of the public parts of it feel like that – vast, lovely, venerable. I went to the enormous reading room, filled out a slip to request a book decades old, and watched it whisked away by pneumatic tube. When my book arrived, I sat down at a table in a hard wooden chair and read it cover to cover in one sitting, since the collection there can’t be checked out.
I’ve even seen parts of it most don’t get to, thanks to a friend who worked there a few years ago. At a donor event to which employees could bring a guest, I had the opportunity for a short behind-the-scenes tour that included the stacks. Unsurprisingly, the less-public parts are more workaday – less nice, even, than the stacks at other libraries, since the public isn’t admitted to them. More surprisingly, they were incredibly hot, even in December. I suppose such a large, old building has heating and cooling challenges, but it did make me worry for the books, especially because the collection there is generally older and rarer. Still, I’m glad I had the opportunity to see the stacks. Now, I donate regularly to the New York Public Library myself – not a large amount, but every little bit counts, as they say.
I still check out plenty of books, though not quite so many as in my childhood, and libraries are still my preferred place to kill time if I need to. I was about to say that I appreciate them more now, but I think it would be more accurate to say that I appreciate them differently now. As a child I loved libraries for the treasure trove of delights they offered me; as a teen I loved them for the refuge they offered me. As an adult, I’m more aware of what they offer others. Obviously, they still offer everything they did me: a tremendous variety of enjoyable media to consume, a safe and pleasant place to spend time for people of all ages. But they also offer a great many other services that rarely if ever impinged on my awareness when I was young: classes and assistance on every topic from computers to job hunting to language learning to knitting; art, history, and culture exhibits; events with public figures, thinkers, and artists of various kinds; and probably far more that I still don’t know about.
All of which is to say that I am really, truly, deeply grateful for the existence of public libraries, and I hope they thrive far into the future.