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A Sudden Huge Overpowering Nostalgia for Libraries

The other day, Matt Bell posted a nice status update about a childhood library experience, and it quickly become clear from the comments that followed how much libraries shaped our literary childhoods–well, at least for those of us of a certain age.  I remembered my elementary school librarian’s kindness, and that warm memory triggered the released of many more, all relating to libraries past.  Because remember how important libraries used to be? Before we had (and then didn’t) big box bookstores? Before we had the internet? If you were like me – and I suspect many of you were – then you spent vast swaths of your formative years searching for treasure on the shelves of your school library or your local library or your college library. You spent hours curled up in the big comfy chairs they used to have there, or sprawled on the floor for story time, or, later, using those study rooms for something very much other than studying. (You know you did. Don’t even pretend.)

You maybe fell in love for the first time at the library: with the shapes and sounds of words, the dusty whoosh of old book covers opening like a magic box, the hushed quiet that seemed to evoke a kind of prayerful reverence. If you’re like me, you fell in love with books at the library and books returned your love in gallons. Or rather, in volumes and quartos and encyclopedias and old maps and slick art books and soft, worn paperbacks.  You and I, we’re still in love with books thanks to libraries.

Those of you who read me here, or over at my own blog, probably know that I don’t tend to share a lot about my own life. I think it’s cool when other people do, but I’m a fairly private person so it’s just not for me. But because it’s fall, and Friday, and because I’m feeling very nostalgic today, I’d like to share a few memories of libraries. After the post, I’d love for you to share yours, too. It feels like that kind of day.

I learned to read when I was four. My parents bought a bunch of Dick and Jane books at a yard sale and taught me to read, mostly because I wouldn’t nap (I’ve never napped in my life) and so they wanted me to be able to quietly entertain myself for an hour or so. It worked. But by the time I went to school, I was bored out of my gourd with picture books. I wanted to read the big kid books. My first grade teacher kept us in the picture book section, but my school librarian noticed how bored I was and when she found out why, she gave me special permission to visit the big kids section of the library and borrow books from there. (This may not sound like much, but it was the COOLEST THING EVER when I was six years old.)

It’s not too much to say that my life opened up that day and became something entirely different, more expansive, full of possibility and feedback and the noise of the whole entire universe.  I read Amelia-Bedelia, the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, the Narnia books,  Susan Cooper’s Under Sea Over Stone series (and then everything else she wrote), Diana Wynne Jones’ available books, the Wrinkle in Time series, The Hobbit, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, The Borrowers, Andrew Lang’s fairy tale books, E.L Konigsburg’s books, Sideways Stories, Daniel Pink’s crazy novels, the Ramona books, all the Shoes books for girls, the Encyclopedia Brown books, the Doctor Doolittle books, Charlotte’s Web, the Gorey-illustrated John Bellairs books, The Phantom Tollbooth, The February Towers, Hans Christian Anderson’s stories, and everything Ellen Raskin wrote. And many, many more. My elementary school library years were kind of like a baby’s first year, when they learn a million things about the sensory world around them–except that mine was a giant working of the imagination. I was finding out how the brain could wrap itself around everything that existed and some things that had never existed at all, and could paint the world in pages and hand it to you in a book.

When I was in fifth or sixth grade, Omaha (where I was growing up) got a brand new library and my brother I were either there or at the swimming pool everyday in the summer. It was this huge, vast white building, very modern and filled with books. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. There were all these fancy corrals that had headphones for this new fangled “audiobooks” thing that had just been invented. (I am old.) And that was neat, but the best thing about that library was just the overwhelming, giant expanse of shelves filled with books, books, books on everything you could possibly imagine. It was that summer, and the following years, that I become interested in four things: history, sci-fi, horror and sex. I read every history book about everything I could get my hands on. I read all the Ray Bradbury and Asimov I could get my hands on. I read all the Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and V.C. Andrews I could get my hands on. And I discovered the most brilliant thing ever: historical bodice rippers. My favorite was Victoria Holt. They weren’t quite romance novels, but man, those books were the trashiest things ever. I read every single one of them again and again, and then I’d read the Lord of the Rings and then I’d go back and read another trashy Victoria Holt.  That library had these big giant plush chairs that I’d sit curled up in for hours and hours, reading Dune or The Dark Tower. I think now about how much time I had to read then, how many books my hungry mind would devour in a single day, and I am in awe and in jealousy. I want to be that kid again, just to have that time and single focus and total lack of outside concerns, job, family obligations, etc. That was an amazing thing and it’s even more amazing to think how much we took it for granted, this gift of time. I’d pay a lot of money for it now.

When I was a sophomore in high school, my family moved to Madison, early in the summer, which totally sucked because I had no opportunity to make friends since school was already out. So instead I walked to the local library every day, checked out books, and laid on a lawn chair in our backyard and read. (Unfortunately this was before people knew how dumb tanning was. Yay.) I wasn’t sure what to read and I was tired of all the horror books and sci-fi by then. I wanted to read “great books,” whatever that meant. The librarian, who (horrifying thought) was probably the age I am now but seemed impossibly middle-aged, made me lists. She sent me off to the theatre section (because I’d already decided I was going to be an actress) and told me which Shakespeare to read. She told me about the Bronte sisters and Dickens and Jane Austen. When she found out I liked horror movies and books, she pointed me to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  In that same library, I also found Steinbeck and Mark Twain and Orwell, and Marquez and Salinger. I found great books, books that I still love today, and books that were roadmaps and markers pointing the way to still more great literature that would eventually make me a writer. The library, and librarian, saved my summer. That summer, lonely though it was, was also special because it was to be my last free summer. The year after I got my first job at a fast food joint and I hung out with friends and had school activities in my free time, and ever since I’ve never had a free summer to read and read and read, never again. I suppose not until I retire.

There were other libraries, too; I loved the UW-Madison library where I felt like a grown up pulling French history books to do my research on the French Revolution in high school. My dad was an adjunct there so he could check out the books for me and I felt so cool because of that. I loved how old the books were, how I couldn’t read the French but felt like it was a secret code I might read someday, how the shelves hid the books until you pushed a button and they magically expanded to let you inside the stacks.

Of course, I went to college when the internet was in its infancy, and before cell phones were ubiquitous, so the library was still the most important and central place on campus. We spent a lot of time there in those quiet, musty stacks, sitting at the tables, notebooks spread out everywhere and studying. (Or sometimes in those little private study rooms, the ones you needed the key for, not-studying.) There was a little place at my university’s library that hardly anyone knew about: a little recessed window on an upper floor that looked out over the campus and was almost hidden from view. I used to sit in there and read for hours, reading Beckett and Ionesco or Derrida and Foucault or Shelley and Keats or Plato and Heidegger or Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. And sometimes, when I was supposed to be reading these guys, I’d be reading graphic novels or thumbing through art books or ‘zines instead. I remember the bathroom was right next to this alcove, but on the other side of a thick wall and series of columns, so every once in a while you’d hear a faint flush that would bring you back to the world with the earthiest of reminders.

I haven’t been to the library very much in the last few years. I’ve spent more hours than I can count at bookstores, but I just haven’t had a need to go to the library. And libraries just aren’t the same. In grad school, I had to spend a fair amount of time at the library but used to avoid it like the plague because everyone, EVERYONE was on their cell phone having loud conversations. There were signs posted, but no one seemed to notice or care but me. I felt old and sad. I try to go to the library sometimes now, but the libraries in D.C. smell like pee and are full of homeless people and have no books. Well, there’s one library that has lots of books, but it’s far away from me (kind of; you know how you get when you live in the city) and has the most homeless people of all. (I’m not opposed to a few quiet homeless people in the library, but getting harassed for food and money or other, weirder things does not make for a peaceful reading experience. )

I miss the library. I wouldn’t be a reader, or a writer, without it. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it. But is it the same? Or maybe now that big box bookstores are going away (some anyway) will libraries come back? Will they be the same in the age of e-books? (And I like the idea of borrowing books on my Kindle in the library, by the way–the books themselves are lovely and aesthetically pleasing but I am by no means opposed to e-books.) I know a lot of libraries are in trouble or closing or closed because they rely on public money that isn’t there anymore.

What about you? Memories? Thoughts? Did you grow up with libraries? Where do you think they’ve gone and where do you think they’re going? Though I’m agnostic, I’ve always secretly hoped, like Borges, that “Paradise will be a kind of library.” Like the end of that Twilight Zone episode but with an endless supply of glasses. Do you hope so, too?

  • Amber Sparks's work has been featured or is forthcoming in various places, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Annalemma and PANK. She is also the fiction editor at Emprise Review, and lives in Washington, DC with a husband and two beasts.

32 thoughts on “A Sudden Huge Overpowering Nostalgia for Libraries

  1. I’m breaking a promise to myself never to leave empty placeholder comments like this, but I can’t help myself: simply put, I love this post. It makes me think of a lot, libraries and more. I’m sharing it far & wide.

  2. I recently discovered, quite by random, a tiny lending library at the back of an arts space in San Francisco. It was so otherworldly, encountering a curated collection of books that so closely represented what I have read, would like to read, or would like to be surrounded by unread. A tiny, intimate space, with an escritoire holding a half-empty bottle of bourbon, and the tiniest notion of a reading nook, fit only for the space’s caretaker, who kindly offered me tea. Libraries, perhaps, are not quite so dead after all.

    1. That’s lovely! And funny, because I think the person who started that lending library sent me an email about my piece. Small world, no? I’ll have to stop by if I’m ever in SF.

  3. Amber, lovely. One of the great pleasures of nesting in a library, for me, has always been the serendipitous discoveries *around* the book for which you’ve gone into the stacks. There’s no experience like it in web research. You go looking for, say, a collection of Jean Dubuffet, maybe a good writeup — & there all around you is the whole world of French painting, 20th-C. color, more than you ever dreamed of…

  4. I absolutely love this, Amber. Beautifully put. I have the same fierce, long-time love for libraries.

    I got tired of the kid section early on as well–especially since I also taught myself to read when I was 3/4. I was way into the classic “lady” novels in elementary school. My favorites were Little Women, The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. Specifically, Jo March in Little Women made me want to become a writer. She was my role model. Of course I played a lot of Carmen Sandiego on the kid computers too. It was odd that they had computers full of educational games from the time I was about seven but still used card catalogs until I was well into high school.

    I’m sorry to read that you don’t have a suitable library close by. I’m still in love with the main branch of my local library. It is massive and modern, with a great little coffee bar and a used bookstore in the lobby, all that, so it’s easy to love. It was voted best library system in the country several times, including last year. They already have reserve lists for books coming out in November. Audio/visual collection, not so good, but that’s not why I go to the library anyway.

  5. P.S. Homeless people are rarely if ever a problem inside the library where I live. Security will promptly kick your ass out if you “loiter,” “beg,” or make any kind of commotion. I was actually kicked out once in high school for making out on the 3rd floor haha.

  6. Amber, thanks very much for this post. Growing up, I never really needed a library because my parents’ bedroom was filled, wall to wall to wall, with books. I read solely from their collection for years until I was about fifteen. My parents bought a house in Laughlin, Nevada and would take my sister and me up with them for long weekends and basically whenever we had time off from school. While my parents spent hours at the casino, my sister and I had a TV (no cable) and VCR for company. The house was empty of books, and we never brought enough to keep us occupied the whole time we were there. However, there was a public library and a video rental store within walking distance. We split our time evenly, and I remember that library housing whole weekends of entertainment. I would often read half a dozen books in two days while we were there. I remember big fat Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein hardcovers in glossy transparent covers. I remember reading magazines (something I had never had real access to) and visiting the sections that had Vonnegut, Ira Levin, and James Joyce. Sometimes I would read a whole book sitting on the floor of the aisle where I found the book. That place was empty, and quiet. Of course now libraries are more like internet cafes than repositories for books. Reading will continue, but I think libraries, like big box bookstores (thanks for the term!) will slowly fade away. Bookstores will persist, but they will become specialty stores, like record stores are now, catering to a specific subculture that enjoys the physical pleasures that go along with the aesthetics. Libraries of the twenty-first century will be digital, I think. I just hope that digital readers, tablets, whatever the means are to read books of the new century will be as prevalent and accessible as picking up a book at your local library.

    1. Thanks back for this comment, Peter! My husband and I are trying to amass a collection large enough to have the kind of house your parents had for you guys–we’re getting pretty wall to wall in our apartment already!

  7. This post deserves a much longer reply. But all I’ll say is that we visited our local library earlier in the year, and I reckon I currently own more books than our library has. It used to be better, but every time I go into the building there are fewer books.

    Libraries in Britain are under threat. It’s such an easy target for cost-cutting (especially given that the government has demonstrated in so many ways that it has no serious interest in supporting either learning or the arts), so libraries across the country are being closed or amalgamated or opening hours are being reduced, or any of a thousand other little ways of chiseling away at a once mighty edifice. And I can understand why fewer and fewer people are using libraries, given the state they have been allowed to get into.

    But what a loss. How can you make discoveries, how can you escape into other worlds, how can you chase down ideas, how can you make that first all important contact with books without a library?

    When Britain’s policies are carried through to their inevitable conclusion, I wonder what sort of world we’ll be living in?

    1. That’s sad to hear, Paul. And it’s much the same here–it’s a very easy target for cost-cutting, especially when governments are cutting vital services that keep people alive and off the streets–how can anyone say there is room in the budget for frivolous things like books, right? Ugh.

  8. I was politely asked to leave the Columbia Library twice, once for laughing too much while reading Catch-22, the other time for laughing too much while reading Lolita.

    1. I was reading The Education of Hyman Kaplan by Leo Rosten in the library at my university when I came across a line so funny that I knew I had to laugh out loud. But I was in the quietest part of the library and the furthest corner away from the entrance. I had to walk out, a hideously long slow journey, before I could burst out laughing. Libraries are curious places for that.

  9. I worked at a public library as a page for several years as a graduate student & then as I was finishing up postgraduate studies, and still look very fondly back on those days. I even considered getting a MLS degree, or whatever it is called these days, but decided I simply could not afford another degree whose aim was a profession on its last legs. One of my more noteworthy experiences while working there was when I interrupted, well, that’s not quite right, because he only very vaguely took notice of me, a man masturbating. That was noteworthy enough, I suppose, as much as it ever is, but all the more so by the fact that he’d chosen as his inspirational material a rather old–so old, I now can only surmise he had to have requested it from the stacks–guide to the solar system–ours, presumably.

      1. It was, while awkward (more for me than him), it was also strangely poignant. Ill-disposed to deal with the situation, I tracked down security, but suggested, only half-joking, that the least we could do is let him finish.

      1. Hi, Russ-

        I wasn’t at all trying to generalize, and I’m sorry if my essay came off that way. Obviously from the comments here there are a lot of libraries that are fantastic and kicking today, and many of my friends are librarians so I certainly don’t mean to suggest the profession is on its last legs or something–not at all. I was speaking mostly of my own experience here in
        DC, where–you’re exactly right–the funding for libraries isn’t too terrific. A short drive away in Bethesda, a wealthy DC suburb, the library is absolutely fantastic–it’s just hard for me to get to so I don’t go very much, sadly.

        I hope someday to live in a city with fabulous libraries and I certainly am glad that there are committed and vibrant libraries and librarians around making that happen today for millions of kids and adults all over the country.

        1. Russ, I suppose I just take as a given, as unacceptable as it is, that public funding of libraries (outside of well-to-do communities) will likely get worse rather than better. There will be more, I would imagine, fights such as we had in Oakland a couple of months ago, where a plan was in the works to shutter roughly 90% of its neighborhood branches. The plan was defeated, but barring something unforeseen, I cannot help but imagine that the fight will simply occur, if not here, elsewhere.

          All the same, I was not intending to poo poo your profession. As I say, I love libraries & librarians, one & all, but this love does not translate into necessarily considering it a foolproof career option for those who are not already in the profession. (The same goes for my doctorate in philosophy, I might add.) For the sake of those in the appropriate studies, I hope I’m wrong and ill-informed.

  10. I’m always happy to hear people reminiscing about their fond memories of the libraries of their childhoods, but I’m not sure a few libraries in DC are any reason to act like There Is A Problem With Libraries Today or that Libraries Just Aren’t Like They Used to Be, which is kind of how that last part read to me. I am a librarian, so I tend to get a little bit defensive about these things. Of course a child using a library in a small town in the midwest is going to have a better experience than a well-read adult with much more difficult-to-satisfy tastes is in a poorly-funded branch of a municipal library in a big city like D.C. Libraries are funded by the community. The smaller and wealthier the community the better-funded the library will be. Better-funded libraries look better, have better collections and are more pleasant to be in. I’m not even going to try to guess what kind of money DC’s public libraries get (library of congress aside), but I can’t imagine it’s good.

  11. The latest turn these comments have taken — towards the danger these great institutions face — demands my support. Libraries remain one of the very few freebies in the American social and educational system, and a essential resource for an informed populace (the basis of any democracy, according to Jefferson). Yet libraries are constantly under the knife, at budget-cutting time. Therefore here in the Midwest, and out in Portland, OR, and back in Boston and New York too, I’ve done all I can, lending straws to help prop up the local libraries.

  12. FYI, just saw this: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/downtown-library-shutting-its-doors-on-sundays/2011/09/25/gIQAL4ZJxK_story.html?tid=sm_twitter_washingtonpost

    I don’t know which is worse: that we have no libraries now open on Sunday in DC, or that people were just using the library to watch football anyway. Probably the latter. Which is why, as I say, I don’t frequent the libraries in DC. They’re not exactly…used as libraries.

  13. In the words of Caitlin Moran libraries are the “Catherdrals of the minds and the Hospitals of our souls”. I love libraries, as a student I would nest in the library and get distracted by what not to read. I have recently started to visited my local small town library weekly. An easy hour goes by. Great spaces great places

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