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Memories of the Library
This writer did not grow up in New York; however, he has many strong, memorable experiences of the library from his home state. Nationwide, and even internationally, many libraries are in trouble and in desperate need of funding. Please contact your local branch and see how you can help today. Also, please consider donating or writing your elected official now!
The library is many things to many different people; it is an abyssal democracy of plurality without end. Here, I tried to cull fragments of where my past and the library intersected, albeit not in any sense that would show up on administrator or an accountant's spreadsheet. While literacy, learning and entertainment are paramount, the 'library' itself as an abstraction is a multiplicity of experiences, subjectivities, desires, thoughts, venturings, investigations, exits, routines and chance encounters, all worth documenting and sharing. It is this abstraction of a unique spatial and temporal singularity in human existence that is 'the library' I hope here to highlight and illuminate.
—I am always struck by seeing families at the library, especially on the weekends. Most of my memories at the public library involve my dad in some capacity. When my brothers and I were younger, he would gather a large stack of children's books together, almost seemingly at random. We would then sit down at a table, and he would divide up the titles indiscriminately while we looked on passively, counting 1, 2, 3....1, 2, 3...1, 2, 3. It didn't matter my older brother was two grades above and my younger brother 2 grades below me, if you got something you could understand great, good for you. If you got something that was a little bit drier, dense and difficult to get through then it was a challenge that surely you would surmount and celebrate victoriously in the end. At least, this was my dad's logic (I think). While the 'sink or swim' school of literacy doesn't have too many acolytes, I do believe it benefited me in the end. To this day I am struck by parents that become fixated on 'grade levels' that they must adhere strictly to (or so they think). If you're never confused then you'll never learn anything new. Then again, perhaps its best I'm not a children's librarian....
—Once as a kid I saw my first physical altercation between adults at the library. While waiting to check out two disheveled looking citizens got into a shoving match, with eventually one knocked down on the floor taking the rubber velvet ropes dividing the queues with him. Mostly all I really remember is how quiet the fight was, and how everyone just stood there staring at the two until they ran out the doors. Someday I wish to see a film that understands how really banal and muted physical violence really is; not only because the slaps, punches and grunts are sonically thwarted in the shuffle of a fight, but also because everyone else is almost certainly just standing there watching, doing nothing.
—Another dramatic and vicariously traumatic experience I recall is when the figure of the 'vigilante' steps up to the fore at the library. This person, of course, was my dad, attempting to right the world's wrongs and not entirely succeeding. Summer afternoon, most likely a Saturday at the library we frequented: the sensors at the exit suddenly sound off, making everyone's hearts race for just that second. We hear a "Wait, stop!" from library staff and although its a bit unclear, it seems someone has run out the exit with library material that wasn't checked out! In a flash, my dad drops his items and takes off chasing the perpetrator in hot pursuit! Was it some sociopath stealing VHS copies and trying to turn a profit by selling them on the street? Maybe some self-absorbed, narcissistic criminal who stole the latest, most popular bestseller?? Surely my dad would tackle him to the ground and bring him to justice!
Several minutes later, my dad walks back in, out of breath and with a skinny, awkward 14-year old boy walking shamefacedly ahead of him. The boy walks silently up to the library staff and presents the stolen item—the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, security sensor still magnetized. Humiliated, the boy breaks down weeping, "I'm sorry....I'm sorry". He is even making that huffing noise kids make when they cry and are trying to speak. The library staff seem confused in general and just tell him to go home, it's ok, no harm done, etc. The general air was.....solemn, to say the least. Although I didn't know it at the time, very briefly at that moment it was as if I was watching a scene from a Todd Solondz film.
—Funny enough, one of my oldest memories at the library also involve me crying! This is around 1988, and I am waiting near the exit on a bench for my parents to pick out their items and for us to go. Across the way, near the entrance, some PUNK ROCKERS enter the library. Now, I'm not sure if it was just Reagan-era sensibilities infecting my parents, or if its just where I come from eccentricity or individual fashion sense is (deeply) frowned upon, but my parents turn to me and say, "We'll be right back. DO NOT speak to those strangers, do you understand? Those are BAD PEOPLE!" I mean, my god, these two had leather jackets, sunglasses, one even had a colored mohawk (basically, your average 1980s punk rock kid that was undoubtedly harmless, especially to small children). Of course, I am scared beyond belief of these strange beings (I'm like, five years old and have never seen anyone with a piercing before) and of course, what do the punk rock couple do?
THEY CHECK OUT BOOKS AND WALK OUT THE EXIT.
That's it. Not a word, not a look, nothing.
They did however, WALK SLIGHTLY BY ME!
This of course sets me off, and I begin crying uncontrollably. I may have even wet myself, I don't remember. The entire library lobby is humbled by my emotive, histrionic tantrum, and I am not soothed until we are comfortably en route toward home in the yellow station wagon.
There before the grace of god....
—The library where I grew up had a carousel. A FRIGGIN CAROUSEL. I am not lying.
It was out back, owned by the city and often when I was little after checking out books I got to ride a merry-go-round! Oh, and did I mention it was free? Yep, free. Not many kids have bragging rights like that these days. FREE BOOKS— then lights, music and riding a smiling giraffe!
The city council later sold the carousel to St. Louis in the early '90s, and made all the children sad.
—The library where was I from also had an awesome young adult room. YA services had not really caught up to speed in most library systems in the '80s and early '90s, but not my library! Girls could read Sweet Valley High, guys could read Dragonlance novels....or whatever was popular back then, I don't remember. Most of my memories of the Young Adult room were via my older brother, not really for myself (just as I started watching MTV when he did, not when I 'would have' watched it growing up on my own— sibling dynamics often get staggered this way, do people know what I'm talking about?....am I making sense?). Anyway, this YA room had a mural on its back wall....God, how I wish I had a picture of this but let me attempt to describe it to you: basically, on the left hand side there was like wizards, and a bald eagle and an American flag, and then like, as your line-of-sight panned right, a cliff appeared and stars and suddenly— you were in outer space! Then there was a spaceship, and people (teens?) gathered on the right, READING. This was when science fiction and fantasy were strictly nerd territory so I always considered that mural pretty ballsy on the library's behalf. I imagine its not there anymore but it was epic, and man it made me more into reading than any Levar Burton "Read!" poster did....
Well, I think that's about it. In high school I went to the library on my own to study, usually math (failed Trig twice). My freshman year in college I slept in the library, everyday. Luckily, in later years I appreciated just how expansive my college library's holdings were, and checked out more books than I ever could possibly read or had time for (then again, I was a humanities major, so there was plenty of time for leisurely reading).
So, the next time you see a kid or a teen at the library, the fact is you don't know what kind of experience they're exactly having. Maybe its social, maybe its familial, maybe its so abstruse, individuated and not accessible to others it cannot be described. The cutting of libraries' budgets doesn't just effect the very real, very material world of people checking out books, DVDs, or participating in programming—its cutting into their very subjective ability to possess memories of a space as beautiful and weird as the library is to begin with...
Think about that and write your elected official today! Feel free to share your most bizarre, precious or completely insane memories of the library below.