A library is a museum of books; a shrine to literature. It is more accessible than a museum and always free to enter. It is far less elitist the a museum: a poorly written book could exist on the shelf next to best-seller. Obviously the greatest aspect of the library: borrow books (up to 50 at a time!), enjoy them at your leisure (in the bathroom, on the beach), fold the pages without penalty (do not recommend!) and return it in a timely fashion.
Technology has blessed the library system like a literary fairy godmother. The inventory for the entire county’s system is digitized and easily accessible online. From their easy-to-use Website, I can renew rentals and request almost any book, CD, or movie you desire and they will find it for you in their system. You get a friendly email notification when it arrives and it waits for you at the front desk, neatly packaged in a large-sized rubber band with your name on a slip of paper.
The library has computers with internet access and meeting rooms. They let you sit there all day in their warm, quiet environment and read books for open until close. For those interested in charming evening opportunities, they offer lovely jazz trios, poetry readings, local art exhibitions, and foreign movie screenings from 1939.
My daughter has borrowed about 4,000 books over the last three years, but at the library, there’s always more. Most likely she won’t read the whole library. The library provides all this and I’m not a gold-star member! Everyone is equal at the library as long as you have the plastic card, which incidentally, they give you for FREE! (As long as you prove you live in the county.)
I often have interesting conversations with octogenarians at the library. Maybe they’re nostalgic for something which still feels like it did when they were younger. At the core of the concept of the public library is the honor system, based on the goodness of humanity. It is calm, tones are hushed, and it it smells like smart people contributed to the walls around you. I don’t often find angry people in libraries; the librarians are soft-spoken, predictably a cliche of themselves.
In 9th grade, I took “Scholars Biology” which was notorious for a 100-page-fish-report. We were warned about it from older brothers and sisters. Some kids entering high school avoided the honors class altogether because of the threatening project. Not me. My fish report turned out to be about the porpoise, which turned was a lucky break when it came to research. The report was to be separated into chapters, one for each of the species bodily systems (respiratory, reproductive, digestive, etc.). Along with each thorough write-up, we had to provide diagrams. Finally, as the finale to the project, we had to find a recipe with our fish and make it. I couldn’t make porpoise so instead I made something it ate: abalone. When the reports were turned in, there was a big fair in the high school cafeteria and our parents were invited to come. My parents didn’t come, but the local newspaper did. Good thing because last week I came across the newspaper clipping and it reminded me, I was “CO-CHAIR OF THE EVENT?” Brain fart.
The report occupied several months of Saturdays where I had to go to the Mid-Manhattan Library “in the city” as Staten Island folks referred to it, to do research for the paper. I had to be driven to the ferry terminal (1/2 hour), take the ferry across (1/2 hour), and subway to midtown (1/2 hour). There are two large branches of the NYC Public Library; one is glamorous with vast welcoming steps bookended by lions. It was immortalized by Carrie Bradshaw’s almost wedding in Sex and the City, the first movie. I went to the less sexy library, with a plain entrance and ugly brown hard chairs. In pursuit of porpoise uterus diagrams and such, I dug through cryptic card catalogs, matched abstract codes, scoured indexes, found “good-enough” pictures, and spent dozens of dollars in dimes at the photocopy machine. Occasionally I confronted the microfiche; talk about back in the day of cord phones. I spent hours fast-forwarding those large reels in one direction, going too far, and having to back it up.
As a freshman in college, I took Human Infectious Diseases: From Aids to Influenza, to fulfill my science requirement. The title of the upper-level biology class appealed directly to my repressed hypochondria. The grand summary of the entire semester was “wash your hands” to prevent everything. My final paper was 40 pages on Lyme Disease. We were directed to use the medical school’s library across the river. With my fish report research experience behind me, I felt armed for battle. But there, I was smaller than ever amongst the med students. The language was jargon; the copy machines progressed to plastic cards, and the worst part: I couldn’t check anything out! I had to keep coming back.
My kids just ask Siri or Google.
The technology has accelerated, but the library experience has frozen still in time. It is there as a preserved sense of simpler times, a historical connection to tradition, and a trove of buried literary treasures.