Libraries Matter

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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And one more PS: if you’re a library fan, you might enjoy the discussion we had about famous librarians.