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I flipped the pages eagerly: cauliflower; celery; potato; tomato. At last my excitement about this harvest of words bubbled over and I ran to find my mother. She was skimming the cover of a thriller. She didn’t seem to grasp what I was saying to her. When she finally understood, she and a nearby librarian looked at me with that indulgent yet patronizing expression that grown-ups seem to reserve for children in such situations. But even that couldn’t spoil my joy.
In the center of the library stood a tall wooden card catalog. The librarian taught me how to use it. I liked to riffle through the cards, the new ones crisp and self-important; the older ones sometimes scribbled on and softened. I rarely used this catalog; only if a school project demanded it did I actually hunt for anything specific. Mostly I opened its narrow drawers for the pleasure of seeing how far I could tug them before they threatened to topple out. And mostly I browsed the library shelves, following my curiosity rather than some predetermined program of study. One librarian objected when, at age 10 or 11, I tried to withdraw adult books, but my mother must have spoken with her, for on my next visit no one challenged my choices. I felt a freedom there, a freedom that makes perfect sense if you recall that while our library derives from the Latin liber, meaning the inner bark of a tree—an early form of paper—the primary meaning of the word is “free, independent, unrestrained.” Books and liberty are born of the same parent.
The card catalogs are mostly gone now. A few places keep them for their aesthetic value; in one Los Angeles library, a collection of typed and handwritten cards lines a glass-walled elevator. Some librarians argue for the artifact; important information is lost, they claim, when those old cards are thrown away. Most libraries have moved to online cataloguing systems. In my city’s main branch, circulation and returns are also fully automated. I can enter and leave this library with less human contact than at a supermarket—which ought to be a good thing, since I go there to be alone with the books. Why, then, do I go less often than I once did, to browse the shelves? Why, with every change in the library’s floor plan to accommodate new equipment, do I feel a little less welcome?
I ought to get over myself, because for millennia, the capacity to change and adapt to new technologies has helped to keep libraries vital. The first written records appeared on clay tablets about five thousand years ago; later, leather, or silk, or parchment, or papyrus scrolls took the place of unwieldy clay. Private libraries of fiction and nonfiction sprung up as early as the fifth century B.C.E.; Aristotle was well known for his collection. But then, as today, possession of a library did not guarantee one’s intellectual credentials. “By now, like bathrooms and hot water, a library is got up as standard equipment in a fine house,” Seneca complained, thinking of ivory-inlaid citrus-wood shelves stuffed with scrolls that the owners never read. He would have said the same about contemporary libraries where the books are papered over with matching pastel covers, or piled on the floor on top of one another to serve as tables, or shelved according to some decorator’s whim rather than by subject or by alphabet.
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