Libraries Matter

by Josh Hanagarne on April 7, 2010

Note from Josh: I’m not the most serious guy, but libraries–and my role as a professional librarian–are extremely important to me. This guest post gave me goosebumps.

by Lindsey Mead

On Saturday morning, in the full sunshine of the first genuinely spring day of spring, I took my children to the brand new town library.

The library just opened a few weeks ago, and since then the gleaming glass structure and its three floors of books had been calling to me like a siren song across my town. Finally I figured out a time to go.

We walked up to the big glass doors and walked in. I was instantly thrown back into all the libraries I’ve loved, tossed in the whitewater of memory, high school and college and hours spent huddled over thick books and piles of index cards.

As often happens to me, past and present collided in a kaleidoscopic moment of memory and anticipation that somehow, paradoxically, made me simultaneously hyper-aware of the present moment.

The library at my boarding school was well known, famous enough that an architect friend on Twitter extolled its virtues the other day. It was a big brick structure, square, with swooping circles of glass on each side. I had always loved it, and often spent hours randomly wandering the stacks or looking through the card catalog.

How hopelessly antiquated, and wildly charming, a card catalog seems now: the tiny drawers, each with the beautiful hooked handle, and the neatly arranged rows of dogeared cards. In those rows of small cards lived a whole world: rifling through those cards, I felt as though clouds of memories, of people’s fingers and thoughts, rose with the actual dust.

I learned on Twitter that the structure was built on the theme of finding a book in the dark and taking it to a light place to read. The library was dark inside, it’s true, and pools of natural light flung themselves onto the chairs that ringed the outer edge of each floor.

It seems an extraordinary metaphor, this. The heart of the building is the books, the tangible records of others’ thinking and ideas, whereas the outside edge is the space where we can encounter and engage with these ideas.

The library at my college was similarly structurally unique: the majority of the space, the stacks, and all of the work space were underground. There was something about traveling down into the earth that made me feel like I was moving inside myself, too, excavating my own thoughts and intellect just as the builders had pushed aside extraneous earth to make room for this beautiful temple of thought.

I spent far, far more time in this library than I had at boarding school. Every weekend morning, and most weekdays, I could be found entering the building with a big travel mug of coffee and a heavy bag of books. I usually set up on the bottom floor, under an enormous, vaulted ceiling that let in light from the distant sky. I used to sit and look up, my neck craned back, staring at the sky through the glass, four or five stories up. Deep in the bowels of this space, surrounded by books, in the depths of my own thinking, I looked to the sky and felt it illuminating everything.

I have spent so many hours in libraries, all of which came flooding back to me as I stood in the lobby of the brand new Cambridge library, one child on each side of me. Their faces were open and awe-struck, their mouths agape as they both looked up and around at what seemed like miles of books.

I thought about the ways that their spaces can cradle us, urging us to new and deeper thinking. I thought about how the profound celebration of writing and ideas can be simultaneously comforting and inspiring, both safe haven and spur to think harder, deeper, more truly. I thought about the brilliance of architecture in the libraries I have been fortunate to know, the interplay of light, the outside world, and the weight of historical thought as recorded in miles of books. I thought about how immensely lucky I am to love books like I do, to find solace and kinship in their pages, how deeply I hope my children grow up with a same sense of passion for and identification with books.

And then, taking a small hand in each of mine, I marched towards the third floor and the expansive children’s section.

About The Author:

Lindsey Mead is a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  She writes at A Design So Vast about trying to inhabit more fully the various identities that make up her life.  She is a mother of two, a wife of one, a daughter, sister, friend, disillusioned MBA, proud natural redhead, and reformed nailbiter, and she attempts, through writing, to make sense of these various refracted selves.  She is realizing that the place she’s always been furiously driving towards is actually right in front of her.

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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Lindsey April 7, 2010 at 4:22 am

Josh,
What an honor to see my words here – that gives ME goosebumps.
Thank you!

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Josh Hanagarne April 7, 2010 at 9:02 am

You are a great writer, Lindsey. I’d rather that you be writing here than anywhere else.

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Greg April 7, 2010 at 4:44 am

I have a friend who is anxiously waiting for his library to re-open. It’s been closed for the last 18-months for renovation, and he’s barely known what to do with himself during that time.

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Josh Hanagarne April 7, 2010 at 9:02 am

Send him to Salt Lake. Our library rules.

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Shannon O | Confessions of a Loving Wife April 7, 2010 at 4:46 am

A beautiful post Lindsey – you have such a gift!

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Lindsey April 7, 2010 at 9:57 am

Thank you! You are too kind.

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Kira April 7, 2010 at 5:45 am

I love libraries. And I love librarians even more! Superlatives fail to express the gratitude and respect I have for both.

In my first year of University I became friends with Ed, the librarian. Ed changed my life. Each Friday I’d shuffle into the library, we’d sit down and he’d help me construct a ‘balanced’ reading list of the topics I was interested in (he also happened to share the same passion for ‘religion and politics’ that I had—which was doubly cool!). I loved to pick his brain, argue with him, and try and impress him with the knowledge I’d garnered from the previous weeks reading. It was very much an Obewon Kenobi and Luke Skywalker kinda relationship :) without light-sabers :(

Anyway, I came from a very poor background where academic achievement held little to no value. I felt out of place and intimidated amongst the predominantly middle-class student body. Ed, helped me believe in myself. By taking the time to sit with me, ‘talk shop’, and help chose books to develop my mind, Ed showed me that I could actually do ‘this university stuff’. I could learn just as well as somebody who came from a wealthier background with a better educational pedigree.

Ed truly EMPOWERED me.

The research concepts, strategies and skills he taught me, and the irrepressible self-belief he patiently helped nurture, have stayed with me to this day.

Nobody has had a greater influence upon my intellectual development than Ed—except maybe the three librarian ladies I befriended a few years later in my hometown … But that’s another story all together :)

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Josh Hanagarne April 7, 2010 at 9:04 am

Kira, every time I help someone, I try to make a friend out of them. I grew up in libraries, and I see myself every time I see a kid walk in. Most of their faces light up and when they start to understand that everything we have is for them, it’s my favorite part of the job.

I’d like to hear that other story sometime.

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Lindsey April 7, 2010 at 9:58 am

Librarians are magicians. Honestly. I’m glad you were fortunate to encounter a good one!

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Kris Wragg April 7, 2010 at 6:21 am

During college and University I spent a lot of time in the library, both the city public library and the college/university one.

Now I have more money I tend to just buy the books I want and only really use the library when the book is out of print. Perhaps this is why I read less now, and maybe I should walk in to the library and just pick a book at random like I used to!

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Todd April 7, 2010 at 6:52 am

In college, I honestly didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the library. It really wasn’t until my girls started to read that we started to really utilize the local library. Now my oldest rips through books so fast, we’re going about once a week (on top of her getting books from the school library).

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Tim April 7, 2010 at 7:10 am

Hi Lindsey:

This is a beautiful tribute to all libraries – and I could identify strongly with it. I have spent countless hours in libraries for many reasons and I could not imagine life without them. Back in college, I used to spend time at the campus library to get away from the noisy dorm that I lived to study…unfortunately someone made a decision to decorate the library with the absolute worst carpeting…it was checkered with a pattern that brought on vertigo and a strong sense of anxiety. I hope the carpeting has been ripped out of there because, as much as I love libraries, it was tough to spend time there. Thank you for a great post!

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TheKitchenWitch April 7, 2010 at 7:32 am

Lindsey, thanks for sending me here!

As a total geek and lover of the written word, I’ve loved many libraries, too. But not my college one–that one will always be associated with massive amounts of stress :)

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Josh Hanagarne April 7, 2010 at 9:04 am

I’m with you, there.

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Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities April 7, 2010 at 7:37 am

Beautiful post, Lindsey. As always. Thrilled to see your wonderful work showcased here.

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Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire April 7, 2010 at 8:02 am

I spend at least 3 days a week at my local library, one of the most untapped resources in human history. People have no idea what they are missing out on. My friends have seen my library card in my wallet and said “what do you need that for? Just Google it.”

…scary business, but part of me is happy that not everyone feels the same way.

I am a road-trip-aholic and every time I visit a new town I try to take a peek at their library as well. It says a lot about a town, the way they treat their library.

-Joshua Black
The Underdog Millionaire

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Srinivas Rao April 7, 2010 at 8:30 am

I love University Libraries especially at schools that have been around forever. We used to have a section of our library at Berkeley called the Morrison reading room and it was very old, and had a small selection of books, and music that you could listen to. It’s amazing how much we take a resource as amazing as the library for granted. It was only when I was unemployed and couldn’t afford to buy books that I started going back to the library quite a bit.

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Chris Baltzley April 7, 2010 at 8:53 am

As far as I am concerned, the extensive public library system is one of the most incredible things about this country.
I grew up in a small mid-western town in the 50′s/60′s and our library was in a prototypical example of a white, small-town, city-hall-style building – AND it was within walking distance of home. I particularly loved the narrow balcony with one row of low bookshelves that ran around three sides and joined a partial second floor at one end – like you would see in a house now with a 2-story living room with a loft at one end.
My favorite memory is from when I was fascinated with Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. I was checking out several one day when I was about 11 or 12 and the librarian looked at me dubiously (don’t forget this was the early 60′s in a small town – and the actual novels are quite a bit more graphic than most of the movies ) and said, “Are you sure you should be reading those?” I proudly answered with the truth, “My mom lets me read anything I want to!” and carried my treasures home.
I still go to my library every week and usually end up with more reading than I can possibly get done in the time I have. I have lived in several states and numerous cities and I have always gotten a library card – usually the same day I get my utilities turned on!

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Lindsey April 7, 2010 at 9:59 am

How excellent! I love the utilities-library card combination – tells you what a true necessity a library is. Like air.

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Eva @ Eva Evolving April 7, 2010 at 8:54 am

So happy to see Lindsey here – I love her writing, which challenges and enlightens me at the same time.

Growing up in a small town, there weren’t many diversions for school kids. But the library was my favorite place to pass the time. It was almost like a daycare where I could go for 2 hours between the end of school and the end of my mom’s workday, and my parents wouldn’t have to worry about me. Although maybe they should have worried that I migrated to adult books a bit younger than I should have!

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ami April 7, 2010 at 9:51 am

Gorgeous post Lindsey, love your description of your experiences.

Libraries were my sanctuary when I was growing up, and I am often surprised by what I find there and the help I receive from the librarians. For me, libraries symbolize knowledge and expanding minds and riches (of the non-financial type). One of my great joys as a mom is the fact that when I tell the kids, “We’re going to the library this afternoon” they cheer.

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Lindsey April 7, 2010 at 10:00 am

I feel the exact same way when my children respond enthusiastically to a library trip!

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Larissa April 7, 2010 at 9:56 am

Love this. I read it last night and read it again this morning. :) Libraries have always made me feel safe. For some reason, whenever I walk into one, I just take a deep breath and feel myself relax. It’s like walking into the arms of a big old grandpa, you know?
I also love your blog, Lindsey. I think I spent about an hour on it last night, reading through a lot of your posts. I have really been in a funk lately, not soaking up the little things and cherishing my children. Thank you so much for writing so beautifully about the simple things of life.

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Lindsey April 7, 2010 at 10:01 am

Oh, Larissa, thank you – I’m often in a funk too, as you can probably tell … somehow trying to write down the good stuff, no matter how minute, really helps. It also helps to hear you enjoy it. Thank you!
xo

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Stacia April 7, 2010 at 10:30 am

The one constant about libraries, for me, is the dusty, musty, bookish, delicious smell of … possibility. That one smell transports me back to so many libraries (and so many favorite books and treasured librarians), from my elementary school library to the one where I take my own children now. Amid all the changes libraries have undergone, that smell is universal.

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Kelly Diels April 7, 2010 at 11:18 am

Lindsey – I *recognize* this.

I have a weakness for libraries (and librarians!) and my children have it bad, too.

I often have to plan our drives through town so that we DON’T drive by the library, because if my book-mad kids catch sight of that magic building, a volcano of “I want to go the library” erupts in the backseat.

It is a terrible thing to have children who love to read.

Effing literacy.

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Justin Matthews April 7, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Very well written! I can just imagine being there with you. It really reminded me of my college library and some of the public ones near me that I used to hang out at. Thanks for the memory jolt.
-Justin

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Corinne April 7, 2010 at 5:19 pm

So happy to follow you over here Lindsey :)
This was so beautifully written, what a tribute to libraries. I loved my college library, it was so full of light and windows that it had such a sense of nature as well as academics. I haven’t thought of that place for quite a while…
Libraries are fantastic places, and deserve every kind word you wrote.

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Logan Christopher April 7, 2010 at 5:42 pm

I was talking to my cousin the other day and he’s working on a new library somewhere in the San Francisco area. They’re building an automated machine that goes and finds the books for you. Forget about the antiquated card catalog, I guess soon you won’t even be able to browse through the books!

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Lindsey April 7, 2010 at 7:36 pm

Wow, I think that’s kind of a loss!

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Chris Baltzley April 8, 2010 at 6:48 am

Me, too. I know the old card catalogs were a HUGE amount of manual labor, etc., etc., but I miss them. I think I found more interesting things browsing thru there than I ever have with the computerized catalogs.

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Lindsey April 8, 2010 at 7:37 am

The analogy of the difference between browsing in a bookstore and searching on amazon seems apt – it is more efficient, but I think something important is lost.

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Daisy April 7, 2010 at 6:03 pm

What would we do without libraries? I don’t want to think about it. My cousin is a children’s librarian in town and I love to bring her in to my class as often as possible. Then the children recognize her at the library, and they read more, which helps them become better readers, and more.
But while I’m chatting with her over the Newbery Award winners, my husband is searching the microfilms for his geneology research and my son (blind) is searching the young adult section’s audio books collection. We love our library.

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denise April 7, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Lindsey–congrats on this lovely guest post and Josh–so smart to have her write (I adore her eloquent, insightful writing). I still remember my first library. It consisted of one beautiful, old building and one modern addition. The children’s section thankfully resided in the old building. Down the winding stairs my mom and I would go, into the joyful, always-promising kid’s area. The lowered shelves housed the well-loved books which whispered to me, begging me to take them home.

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Walter April 7, 2010 at 9:25 pm

Reading your post reminds me of my childhood where I spent most of my time in the library. My mother is a librarian in our city library and she usually bring us with her during our idle times. It was my childhood playground and I have discovered many good books to read. In my early teens, I become an “expert” in science, history, anatomy, martial arts, etc. All that I’ve learned are still embedded in my memory. More than a memorable place, it has been my haven of discovery. :-)

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Privilege of Parenting April 7, 2010 at 10:33 pm

Hi Lindsey, Nice to follow you to this inviting site. I just loved the library at my college, particularly disappearing into the ancient stacks, the narrow iron stairs climbing half-floors and getting lost in dusty old volumes, piling them up in little cubicles to dive in to different times, worlds, ideas.

And I equally adored going with my kids to the modern local library and whiling away hours in the kids’ section and carting home armloads of bedtime reading for them.

Sometimes I think about the library in Alexandria, burning away and wishing I could time travel to before the fire and spend that sort of getting lost time there (with the ability to read all those different languages, as long as I’m fantasizing).

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Terresa Wellborn April 14, 2010 at 12:34 am

Excellent post, Lindsey.

Ten years service in libraries has me loving them even more. They are as much a part of me as my blood, freckles, tears.

Libraries have of way of emblazing themselves on our memories, minds, hearts. In many ways, they are quite like books. And friends. Personal, resonating, echoing through us onto future generations.

My children and I visit our local PL weekly. And I’m looking forward to the day of returning to work there, again as a Librarian, too.

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