A spirited defense of one of America’s last great public institutions
The books we own tend to become too familiar. That prize-winning novel, bought so eagerly last month but set aside before we read as far as 40 pages; the fat biography foisted on us by a well-meaning friend; even the book of poems that we foist on friends ourselves—suddenly, not one of these seems to contain the secret something that we need for inspiration. We glance at their spines cynically. We grow impervious to their charms. But enter a library, and we lose our hard surfaces and become porous, like paper waiting for ink. We breathe in the smell, that sweet intermingling of must and glue, and our troubles melt away. Our despair at the desk when the words wouldn’t come; our irritation at an imagined slight or a telephone that rang and rang; our sore back—all forgotten. Here, in the hush of the stacks, we can forget the day’s indignities; here, we can recover our curiosity and hope.
A woman with salt-and-pepper hair and a pink coat hauls a wheelbarrow’s worth of books from the gardening section. A mustached man sets up in military history. Down in psychology, a young page parks her laden cart. In the hush of the literature stacks, though, you can be alone. Take your pile of books, their plastic casings shining with a hundred fingerprints, and find a chair—or if not a chair, then a carrel, one with a window that lets in the afternoon light, but not the grit or the clamor of the street. Open a book and feel its paper between your fingers. Worlds unroll as you read. “In a great library . . . a reader can slip into the time-stream which flows from past, to present, to future, and back again,” said 20th-century master librarian Lawrence Clark Powell. Lose yourself once in this continuum and how can you bear a life without books?
My parents bought their first and only house in part for its proximity to a small branch library. There, fiction and nonfiction were housed in different rooms, as were Greek and Latin literature in the libraries of antiquity. My mother and I could walk there on dull afternoons. The children’s section seemed enormous. Often, I was the only person in it. My mother would leave me to pick out books while she did the same for herself. I sat cross-legged on the cool tile floor, pulling books from the shelves and watching dust motes filter through the bright air.
I learned to read in that library. Without intention, without struggle. Simply by sitting with a book. One moment I was staring at pictures of ordinary garden vegetables with some letters beneath them; the next moment the letters became words. Carrot glowed with an intensity exactly suited to its vibrant orange. Peas slipped off the page as easily as off a plate. Years later, when I read Ferdinand de Saussure on the lack of any necessary or intrinsic relationship between signifier and signified, I couldn’t be fully persuaded. I knew that carrot was not carrot in Russian, in Chinese, or in many other languages; I knew it was possible to substitute another set of sounds to indicate the same sturdy root. But there was nothing arbitrary in that hard c like the click of a spade against stony soil; there was nothing arbitrary in that double r. You had to yank the word out of yourself.
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.
The ancient world’s large institutional libraries, like the one at Alexandria in Egypt, seem to have operated much like our major research libraries: A scholar would request a particular scroll and a staff member would go to get it. Public libraries originated during the Roman Empire. In these smaller, less formal settings—many of them housed with the baths—readers had direct access to the shelves. Perhaps those baths were the site of the first book groups.
It was not until the mid-18th century that circulating libraries began to proliferate, for they depended on hundreds of years of technological and social advances, from the invention of the printing press and cast-iron type to improvements in ink and the rise of a middle class. Booksellers were the first to set up lending libraries; they charged a small fee to rent books to patrons who could not afford to buy them. The first free library, for use without subscription, opened in Manchester, England, in 1852, and soon many municipalities began charging a small tax for the establishment of public lending libraries. The idea found broad support, and library systems continued to grow in the late 19th century with huge donations from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
Carnegie built hundreds of libraries in the United Kingdom, and also funded more than 1,800 public libraries in the United States and Canada. Whenever I’m in a small town for more than a day or two, I search out a Carnegie library. Passing the café and the book sale table and the local notices, I wander among the shelves. I recognize the patrons—the man, smelling of unwashed clothes and hair, who talks to himself as he shuffles through the papers in his briefcase; the pimpled teenager who slinks through the doors after school and retreats to the farthest corner of the room; the young mother who pushes her sleeping toddler in a stroller with one hand, while with the other she cracks the cover of the latest mystery. “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the free public library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration,” Carnegie said. The only sounds here are the shush-shush of air circulating through the heating system and the rustle of a turned page. Even in a strange place, I am among friends.
The only thing I’ve ever stolen is a book, and I stole it from a library—the library of my elementary school. Sally Watson’s Lark, set in Restoration England, concerns a 13-year-old girl who, in the absence of her exiled parents, lives with some Roundhead relatives. But the prospect of marriage to her stolid cousin so disgusts her that she bolts for her sister’s home in Scotland. On the way, she meets a young Cavalier spy called James Trelawney, whose irritation with her slowly turns to interest and affection as she demonstrates her pluck and intelligence in the many adventures they share.
I suppose I could speculate about why I stole this book rather than any other. But my reasons were simple. I loved it for its subtle characterizations, its humor, its understated romance. I loved it even for its cover—a rather ordinary line drawing of a pert girl’s face peering out from brownish leaves. I must have borrowed it half a dozen times, and finally, instead of returning it, I “misplaced” it—assuaging my guilt with the thought that according to the circulation card in its back pocket, I was the only one who’d borrowed it in years.
Libraries lose between 3 and 5 percent of their collections every year to thieves like me. To put this in perspective, imagine that your city’s library, like mine, holds about 500,000 volumes. Each week, 300 to 500 books will go missing, and over the course of 12 months, theft could cost a library somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million.
No wonder, then, that sensors and alarms now guard most library doors. Librarians were surprisingly reluctant to institute this change. I think I understand their reasoning. A place dedicated to the free exchange of ideas should not resort to the loss-prevention tactics of a discount store.
Then again, some believe that when it comes to theft, libraries are less sinned against than sinning. One New Zealand author controversially argues that “public library” is just another name for “grand theft” and calculates that as a group, library borrowers rob him of more than $9,000 a year—for a single book. Few writers would go so far, but most recognize that through libraries they subsidize individual readers. In fact, most countries acknowledge this fact with public lending right schemes that aim to compensate creators for lost income. But no one pretends that compensation is complete, and now Google’s wholesale copying of books threatens further erosion of writers’ incomes.
Perhaps the digital revolution’s threat to libraries is even greater. Between 1991 and 2001, the University of California library system saw a 54 percent decline in its circulation. Students today are accustomed to getting information with a click. They do not want to scour the stacks. They do not want to trace sources through bibliographies; why should they, when everything they seek is a keystroke away?
With borrowing rates diminishing at such a rapid rate, libraries are finding it more difficult to justify funding requests, and in many cities, services have been severely cut. Essayist Sven Birkerts prophesies, with a kind of horror, that library buildings may soon become nothing more than museums, places where patrons can go to see a printing press or an original manuscript, rather than places where they can read or borrow books. Places of the past and of the dead, that is, rather than sites of a living culture.
But the specter of doom has clung to libraries before; they have always shaken it off. In 2003 a mob set fire to the collections of the famed House of Wisdom in Iraq. This was not its first catastrophe; in 1258 the Mongol invaders flung so many books into the Tigris that its waters ran black with ink. And as long ago as 378, with the Roman Empire in ruins, the historian Ammianus Marcellinus predicted that the “libraries are closing forever, like tombs.” Needless to say, he was wrong. Some people believe that replacing books with digital texts will spell the end of the library as we know it, but perhaps the human thirst for knowledge is great enough to withstand even this latest assault. Perhaps the library is better thought of as an idea—or an ideal—than as a physical place.
Or is it? I remember my daughter’s small fingers closing around her first library card, the gleam of pride in her eyes as she fingered its surface, scored with the letters of her own name. To be the holder of a library card is to take an early step toward citizenship. Before the bank account, before the driver’s license, before the legally purchased beer, or the opportunity to vote, comes the chance to advertise one’s curiosity to the world.
I am no different from the next person. I spend more time on the Internet these days than I spend with actual books. Writing this essay from a remote rural location, I easily found the facts I wanted about ancient libraries and borrowing trends and library theft, thanks to Google. With a little more effort, I even found what I wanted to know about Sally Watson, whose name I had forgotten. You can find anything on the Web, if you’re a determined sleuth with strong eyes.
To see so much, so quickly undoubtedly represents a great advance. But can there be any doubt that it changes our orientation to the world? For in a library filled with books, we are not just eyes, but also nose and ears and hands and heart. Each book is a continent, one with varied terrain, friendly or unfriendly animals and citizens; it might take days or weeks or even years to get to know the place and its complex customs. In contrast, Internet sites are like sandbars—simple, shallow, and rapidly shifting. The Internet is a wonderful tool for finding what we are looking for. But in a library of books, we can find what we didn’t know we sought.
Years ago on a rainy November afternoon, walking home from work by a different route than usual, I stopped at the university’s medical library. On the main floor there wasn’t much to see—just a reference desk and the usual computers. Fretful-looking students occupied the few chairs. I trudged downstairs. There, in the stacks, I happened on a deserted corner that held some older books—mostly biographies of famous surgeons and the proceedings of various medical societies. Their frayed cloth bindings and yellowed pages gave off the smell of mildew; their outdated science and stiff, archaic language lent them a pathetic air. “A library is but the soul’s burial ground,” Henry Ward Beecher once said. “It is the land of shadows.” Standing among these old books, I knew myself to be in the presence of ghosts.
Perhaps this feeling was exacerbated by my next selection from the shelf. The Diary of a Resurrectionist told the story of one of those rogues—or heroes, depending on your perspective—who in the late 18th and early 19th centuries broke into the coffins of the freshly buried and stole their bodies for use in anatomy classrooms. The idea took hold of my imagination, though I couldn’t have said why. Years later, I got my answer in these lines by the Scottish poet George Macbeth: “All crib from skulls and bones that push a pen. / Readers crave bodies. We’re the resurrection men.”
If writers animate the dead, then every library is a plundered graveyard. Yet we’ve little to fear from the phantoms that wander there. They seem happy to be at large, happy to entertain us or to be of use. They jostle each other playfully and try to shout each other down. They invite us to sit on their tombstones and talk.
And is that not the definition of writing—and of reading? A dialogue between one soul and another, or many others, carried on across the boundaries of time and space? We find these souls in libraries. We find them not by single-minded searching, but by opening ourselves. Like books.
Excerpted from Issue 116 of The New Quarterly: Canadian Writers & Writing. “Library Haunting” was awarded second place in the magazine’s inaugural Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest.www.tnq.ca
This article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.