For Richer or Poorer: A Love Affair with the Library

The true glory of the public library is that everyone who goes there is rich, but it has nothing to do with money.

When we lived in Montana, one of the most anticipated days of the week was Thursday. That was the day we took my husband’s grandparents to the weekly Senior Citizens’ Dinner at the Community Center.  And twice a month, when we pulled into the parking lot for the Thursday noon meal, our kids would spot a large bus and excitedly shout, “Jerry’s here! Jerry’s here!”

Jerry, of course, is the librarian/bus driver for the Infomobile that makes regular Thursday stops in Broadview, Montana.  Jerry is a kind, soft-spoken man nearing retirement age, but for my kids, Jerry and his book mobile were greeted with the excitement of spotting a rock star.

Twice a month we had a routine of climbing up the tall bus steps, heaving a bulging bag of books to return on his counter, and heading to the long bottom row of the bus shelves where all the children’s books are stowed.  Our two-year-old even knew the routine, and would make his selections and plunk the books up on the counter on our stack to check out.

After watching her siblings read books, our baby heads to the shelf to find a book, too. Just over a year, she loves “reading” a good book.

Next, our kids eagerly watched Jerry scan the books, making them officially “beep,” stamp them all with a date, and most fun of all, when the books were all stamped, the kids presented their hands.  If they asked nicely using “please,” which Jerry sometimes reminded them, they received a highly sought after date stamp on their hands.

Then we loaded up our once again bulging bag of books, climbed down the steps that are waist-high on small kids, and headed home.  A library bag full of new books to read feels like amazing wealth.  Usually, the next step involved dumping out the books all over the living room floor to fully check out the new selections. I’ve even on occasion seen a kid or two happily roll in the book pile, like the familiar movie scene of rolling in a pile of money after a big night in Vegas.  (Please don’t tell the library that my kids roll in books.)

After that, we’d pile on the couch, settle book selection disputes, and read as many of the new books as we could before it became obvious that afternoon nap time had arrived. Thursday Infomobile library days were always good days at our house.

Libraries to me are amazing places.  I’ve frequented libraries enough to know how just they work, but it still amazes me every time I visit that I can just pick any book I want, have as many books as I want, and take them all home.  For FREE.  No matter how many times I go to the library, there is always a little fleeting moment in my mind where I feel like this whole public library system can’t be for real.  It’s a little moment of awe.  Isn’t the librarian going to chide me and say I can’t really have all of these books?  As I grab the bag of books and walk away, isn’t someone going to stop me and ask me for some cash or a credit card in exchange for all this book bounty?  I really get to just walk in and take these books home, for nothing?

The true glory of the public library is that everyone who goes there is rich, but it has nothing to do with money.  Simply enter the doors, and everyone has full, complete access to everything inside.  In an age of tightened budgets, many libraries are forced to reduce hours and cut staff, but they still remain available to all, with free books, free computer access, free magazines to read (with no guilt of speed-reading an article in the store checkout line), free DVD rentals, and on and on.  The library provides wealth in knowledge beyond compare, and it doesn’t cost a single dime.

What an amazing equalizer to live in a country where personal income has no bearing on one’s access to a world of information via public libraries.  I’m particularly awestruck by the New York City Public Library.  I’ve only seen it in pictures, and it’s an impressive beauty to behold.  Made of stone with columns rising up in the front, and intricate gold inlays in the ceiling, it looks more like the European cathedrals I’ve toured than a library. What really strikes me is wondering what it would be like to be a child growing up in the projects, walking into that place of awe, and getting to check out books there just like everyone else.  What would that feel like?  What kind of impact does that have on a child to have that library access?

Libraries and books resonate deeply with me.  I often heard my mom tell stories of how poor she was growing up as the oldest of 13, but almost always in the same breath, were stories of how she’s always loved books, had a library card, and always had a book (or three) to read.  In books and their opportunity to learn, she always had wealth.  And now, my mom is a librarian, her dream job.

For me as a kid, walking out of the library on a summer afternoon with a gluttonous armload of books gave me a giddy feeling of utter abundance and richness.  Settling in with a book on a summer evening and not going to bed until the sun started to come up in the sky was not an uncommon activity in our house growing up.  Getting lost in a book feels like the essence of summer.

A quiet Sunday afternoon, relaxing in the sun room and enjoying a new book from the library.

The glory of a summer trip to the library hit me all over again last Saturday.  We haven’t been to a library in two months with the busyness of settling into a new house and a new routine.  Visiting a new library for the first time after not visiting any library at all for two months made the whole experience new again for my kids.

Instead of their usual library mode of assertively choosing books off of the shelf, they were cautiously asking, “Mom, can I get this one?”  “Is this one ok?” “Can I have this one, too?”  I realized my kids were in their “store mode,” where they tentatively ask for something and then expect to hear “no” as the response.  When I recognized what was going on, I reminded my six- and five-year-olds that books in libraries are free, and they can in fact choose any books they like.

And that’s why I love the library.  As a parent, saying “no” and setting limits to unending requests when we’re out and about is big part of my job.  Saying no means we don’t come home with a van full of popsicles and trinkets on every trip to town, but on the negative side, sometimes I feel like my main job title is Chief Rejector of All Requests.

I love that the library is the one place where, when I walk in with my kids, I get to say “yes.”  They don’t get to fling books off of the shelves or swing from light fixtures, but when it comes to picking out any book that strikes their fancy, the answer is a big, fat “YES!”

And best of all is what happens with the books at home.  Just this morning, our five-year-old boy was conspicuously absent from our breakfast table.  I looked into the living room and I didn’t find him in front of the tv, so I yelled upstairs.  From long down the hallway in the sun room upstairs, I heard the boy who hadn’t even eaten breakfast yet, lost in another world yell, “I’m just looking at this book.  Is it lunch time already?”  And in that moment of morning breakfast melee, I was deeply pleased that my son who never misses a meal was oblivious to time and hunger because of reading a book.  That’s my boy.

Written June 11, 2012.
© 2012

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