I told someone the other day, “Books saved my life when I was growing up.” And they did. I have spent days/weeks/years with my nose in books and, consequently, in libraries. As a designer, I find inspiration, and sometimes escape, inside of a library; as a business owner, I find critical information that has helped me grow who we are as a business and who I am as an entrepreneur. As Alabama Chanin (and my skill as a designer) has grown, so has my personal library (just ask our accountant). I have stopped dating certain men because of the absence of a library in their life, and my daughter believes the library is part of her own living room.
Ask almost anyone to describe their feelings about libraries and each person you speak to has a vivid memory of their own childhood library. I’m sure part of the reason for this is that, once upon a time, there were fewer ways to occupy yourself as a young person, and you had to actually check out a book to read it. An actual book – something that had weight, and pages you could turn, and needed bookmarks to hold your place. Ask someone about their smart phone or their Kindle and they will probably tell you how much they love it, how convenient it is, or how many features it has. Ask someone about a book, about a library, and people will tell you their memories.
So, I asked several people how they felt about libraries: what role they played in their lives, what roles do they continue to play, how they are changing, and what they mean to the community. Library people – take heart. We might be quiet and pensive at times, but we are many.
As a child, my own first memory of the library is the summer reading program. The library had that old book smell. The possibilities seemed so endless, standing in there surrounded by books. As I grew older, I wanted my own library. To this day, I hoard books (see note above). I’ve always wanted bookshelves in my dining room – and they will be there one day soon. I’m a natural introvert and I always say that I feel more at home in a library than at a party. I’m only partly kidding. Here’s what others have to say:
“I spent a lot of time in libraries as a child. I was free to roam around the children’s section and pick out ten books. The coolest part was that my mom always let me choose. Ultimately, what I left with was what I had picked. And for the next two weeks, those books and I would become fast friends. A couple of years ago, I took my son to the library, so he could get his first library card and explore. I went straight to the section where the L. Frank Baum Oz Series once lived. I read those over and over. After twenty-five years, the books had been relocated, but I found them (where the hulking wooden card catalog used to be). I snatched one off the shelf, opened it to the middle, and buried by nose in it; it was so important to me that it still smelled the same. And it did. It smelled like walks with my mom and my childhood comforter – the one that I snuggled under to read. It smelled like my first hint of independence.” –Jaimee Hannah
“The library is invaluable to a family. First, you are a child who roams the (seemingly) big rows, filled with Curious George adventures and Berenstain Bears. As a little girl, I searched out dinosaur books. My curiosity flourished there. Back then, we didn’t have internet or iPads, so I learned a great deal from the lady who could point me to the right shelf after looking at a small index card – then tell me exactly where my book was, waiting for me. As a teenager, the library changed for me and felt like a solemn, dusty place that I was forced to go. But, when I became a mother, the library renewed itself. I found other mothers, frazzled and longing to get out of the house, like me. We found camaraderie in watching our respective children grow. I realized that this is a place where community really does come together: we learn, we share, we grow. I see the library through my children’s eyes now. And for the first time in a very long time I remember what it felt like for me, walking those aisles.” –Laura Senecal
“Because our mother is a librarian, we grew up in the library. We were supposed to behave. Mom was working. The library is such a rules place. No talking. Don’t run. But, we always had our own way; we were free to do whatever we wanted. Maybe that’s why I loved it. The library was about books – we were surrounded by them. We could, and did, read whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted. We definitely read books that were too mature for us, touched all of the historic documents protected under glass, studied the encyclopedias. There was so much viewing of educational filmstrips, using the microfilm machine without permission (remember those?), and jumping on furniture. But, that’s not what sticks with me. I remember the smell of real paper. I remember the excitement of finding a book, before computers. Even in college, I loved doing research in the stacks and finding the perfect article in periodicals. Remember the book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler? It was about kids on an adventure in a museum. That’s what I will always feel about the library, growing up there: the unadulterated fun we had. We were completely unsupervised and doing nothing wrong. Being subversive in the library. Who knew that was possible?” –Jenny Davis
“I have always been fascinated with books and all that they represent. The freedoms that we either possess or long for are there, in the pages. There are millions of worlds waiting to be discovered, if you have a receptive mind. Working in a library, I see what goes on behind the scenes. I see how much work goes into bringing books and media and putting them in the hands of the public. The longer we work, the more familiar we become and the more satisfaction our patrons experience. A community needs a library. Even as technology brings new outlets for media, a library is a concrete source that brings comfort to the minds of many people. People need to know that the world still encourages imagination and the pursuit of knowledge.” –Kelsey White
“Books contain memories. I’ve worked in a library for almost four years now. There’s nothing like making a library card for a young child who is excited to check out their own books. I’ve leaned over the desk many times to get eye-to-eye with a young boy or girl as I explain to them what it means to have his or her library card. ‘It’s everything you need it to be,’ I want to whisper to them before they scamper away, but I know they wouldn’t understand it just yet.” –Jaimee Hannah
“Libraries are the keepers of culture, and librarians are the caretakers at the gate. There’s a mindset that a library is a building with books on a shelf, but for me they’ve always been like something closer to church. Libraries are places of spiritual experiences just waiting to happen. And anyone – despite gender, race, class, creed, or occupation can tap into that possibility. It doesn’t matter who your daddy is.” –Stephenie Walker
“Librarians are referred to as Media Specialists now, due to the addition of computers, tablets, e-books, etc. We’ve gone from checking out books on cards and sending overdue notices written by hand, to everything being done by or on a computer. All of these advancements reduce the space that was needed when it was all in paper form. Libraries are at a point where we have to constantly change to accommodate users, learning styles, and technology. For me, the best part of working in an academic library for over 30 years is the lasting relationships. I still get Christmas cards and emails from former students; some will bring their babies, fiancés, and parents to meet us. When you work with young people, generally for four years, you become an integral part of their lives and they yours. You become a mentor, marriage counselor, advisor, and confidant. For me, the library has been about books and about connection – with the literature, with the people, with the community.” –Grace Simpson.
We can have a conversation about libraries, their technical amenities or shortcomings, or where they fit in modern culture. But, no matter how you begin the conversation, it will always stir up emotion. People have strong connections to and important memories associated with their libraries. I admit that some of these memories have made me a bit teary-eyed. What are your memories?
All images were provided by the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library.