Like many places across the country, our public library system is functioning at limited capacity. When this whole mess got rolling, it did actually close for around two months, and I learned about it roughly 30 minutes before they locked the doors. At that time we ran to the library and went on a bit of a mad dash around, stocking up on books, music and movies we wouldn’t otherwise have gotten that day. We had entered in somewhat of a daze, but our departure was marked with adrenaline, supplied by librarians, and our own disbelief, reminding us that we wouldn’t be able to come back the next day: “Stock up!”
Now, eight months later, the libraries are still closed, though we can actually check materials out and return them again, thanks to the online system and computerized drop boxes. It’s not as magical as ambling lazily along the stacks, or even through them with deliberation, and for the most part you have to know what you want. Patrons can talk to librarians over the phone, but of course some human contact is lost, because chit chat isn’t really a thing with this setup. There’s no replacing the walk around a certain portion of wall to be able to swing by the desk and say, “Hey, just wanted to say thanks for helping me find that article” or, “So funny, we talked about calligraphy ink last time and look what I just found on the new arrivals shelf!”
I really miss our library.
When my son was about two, I was checking out books one day as he toddled back and forth behind me, along a wall and walkway area. The clerk casually looked over and said, “Wow, he has gotten so big!”
“Oh, you’ve, uh, seen this baby before?” I stammered.
“Well, yeah, you only bring him in every week since he was born!” I was really taken aback at that point, because I had no idea library staff might even notice such a thing. My attention, hyper focused on a really terrible time we were emerging from, noticed only the necessary. But it made me really happy to know there could be this sort of back and forth, beyond the casual greetings, authentic as they were.
Over the years, the library and its staff (at least the ones we came into contact with) became an integral part of my little son’s life; he was a reader from the get go and they treated him as if he was the most important patron there. He loved the reading contests, talked to staff about his interests, and one of the supervisors gifted him an Ernest Shackleton t-shirt she’d found in a thrift store. (We still have it.) And the twice-yearly library book sales, which my son used to replicate during his at-home play. Need I say more?
I was delighted to experience an expansion in our excursions when Turtle wanted to start going to the satellite branches, two in particular. They are much smaller, but it was really fabulous to discover that their collections were just as quality as the main branch’s. Browsing through the stacks led me to such books as Butter: A Rich History or copies of Alexander McCall Smith’s latest book I hadn’t even known was published.
So, I can’t go into the library at the moment, and this may be why I seem to have so many books off my shelves recently. I have always had such stacks as my really-want-to-read-these-next pile, or the at-risk-of-forgetting-if-I-put-them-back-on-the-shelf mound. Just last night I finally sat on the sofa, my gaze moving over the multiple small heaps of books and decided they really do need to be arranged in a way less cluttered, more organized. Becoming overwhelmed would never do.
Naturally I browsed as I went along. Perhaps it’s just my grownup version of playing library, separating as I did, into various piles by subject, library or mine, read now or later, take to my room or keep here. It was not unlike the manner in which I stroll through the shelves at the library, and I stopped, memories such as the above and others flooding my mind. The Runaway Pancake, for instance, came with a CD of the author reading to an audience of children. Turtle was enamored of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and, even as a very small boy, used to recite, “Move, and I strike. Don’t move, and I strike” in a voice he made as menacing as he could, to match that of the wicked she-snake, Nagaina.
These moments with my boy, now a teenager, seem like just yesterday, but the day the library shut down—eight months have passed and it seems like so long ago. Neither timeline, really, how it should be. Children grow way too fast and libraries, once one of the pleasantries that filled themselves into many spots within those years, have simply stopped. In a way we still haven’t emerged from the library daze we were cocooned in as we walked out the door that day last March, and saying the words out loud—“We are approaching a year since we’ve been in the library”—only contributes to our continuing disbelief. Sure, administrators try to transition at least some programs into online versions of what they once were, but the truth is that libraries are living, breathing places because they are occupied by people who bring the home of stories—our stories, those of our ancestors and all the good and evil they faced, what they created and all that resulted from their massive curiosity—they bring this home of the world’s stories to further life, knowing that they already beckoned us to their circles, knowing we are programmed, in our very DNA, to want to hear the tales they long to tell us. Stories are living, breathing things, they are in our bones and we nourish each other.
Long may it be.
It’s been awhile, but you can check out the last edition
our my Browsing Books series here.