I had been going to the library in our town since I was little. Originally, it was in an old Carnegie Library building downtown. I thought it was the most beautiful building. Everything was wood and metal. The floor was so creaky that you always knew where other people were in the library. The children and young adult sections were up a grand central staircase. Coming down the stairs with books felt like being a princess descending into a ballroom.
Another reason the library was so central to my young experience was that it was primarily my Grandma or Grandpa who would take me – I love and respected them deeply. At first, they were going for themselves and just let me tag along. Soon, I was asking to go. These were not trivial excursions. We lived in a rural part of town, so this was always an exciting trip. Neither of my Grandparents gave me much attention or direction in the library. I never remember being wild or disruptive, so they both would just let me go and do what I wanted. I would sit in a corner and read, or amass a stack to take down for check out, or just wander. I have no idea what they did. While in the library, time seemed to stop. I could have been there for hours or minutes. It didn’t really matter.
I now recognize the profound impact on my development was that I was given freedom. No one, and I mean not one person from a librarian or another adult, ever told me I could not do or read something. This has remained true from childhood to today. I never attended story time or needed guidance from a librarian, but that didn’t matter to me. For me, the real growth came from being left to my own devices and having the power of choice. It felt like I had control.
One of my most vivid memories was the first time not going up the stairs to the children/young adult’s room. I stayed on the first floor and started looking at the books in the “General Fiction” section. I was probably about 8 or 9 years old. I couldn’t reach the top shelves. I wasn’t even sure if I was allowed in the section. I kept looking around to see if anyone would say something. No one said anything. Ultimately, on that occasion, I did not end up checking anything out, but I remember the feeling of excitement, of uncovering secrets and knowledge. I felt I had just broken through some boundary, and there was no going back.
I honestly cannot tell you if I ever did check out anything from the “General Fiction” section in that old Carnegie library. Not long after this time, the town started the process of building a new, more modern library. I knew nothing about the details and logistics. Actually, I think I was surprised the first time my Grandpa said we were going to the library and we drove to a different, new building. It was a little discombobulating at first. The layout was completely different. Everything was on one huge, open level. Things were in new spots. But the unfamiliarity did not last long. It was actually so open and inviting that I never felt there was off-limits space. It was a place for exploration.
Again, the specific timings of things are a blur, but the new, beautiful library was built and open by the time I started high school. The best part was that it was about a mile from the high school. For my education, this was both a blessing and a curse. Before I could drive, I would walk to the library most days – sometimes during school time, sometimes after. This continued after I could drive (although my lazy self would drive that 1 mile). Now, I did not skip school every day, and not every time I skipped school I went to the library. But it did become one of my primary stops.
I used to stay there for hours. Usually reading, sometimes on the computer, sometimes just zoning out. The library staff must have known (or strongly suspected) I was skipping school. No one ever said a word. I was given space and freedom. I may not have been in school, but I was learning. I don’t condone truancy. Formal education is important. It is also important that people are given the opportunity to find their own path, which sometimes looks very different from the traditional. My path allowed me to explore and learn things about myself and the world that I may not have found otherwise.
For example, the library is the place I discovered poetry and writing for writing’s sake. Not literally – I have been writing and scribbling words since I can remember. But, I learned about the true beauty and power of words. I found a small section on one back shelf that was dedicated to the poetry chapbooks and, primarily, self published works from people around our area. They were generally small; some questionable, some good, and some of unimaginable depth and impact. The thing that stuck with me was that these were all the words and thoughts of people like me. We did not only share geographic similarity, we were all people attempting to figure out the world through words.
It wasn’t just books either. I remember one day I learned the library had a map room. I would spend hours looking at and studying maps, new and old. I fantasized about other places and other lives. I traveled the world. I also learned about technology at the library. I am old enough to remember a time when not everyone had a computer at home (some still don’t – let’s not forget that). Libraries are so much more than books. They are not even really about physical space anymore. Libraries are possibility, learning, and the betterment of all humanity. That is not an overgeneralization. I truly believe that.
On a deeper level, the library taught me patience. You cannot rush a story. I would often skip to the last page of a book to see what happened, but if I truly wanted to know and understand something, I had to patiently read the whole thing. The library taught me responsibility and self-worth. I was responsible for not only the physical object, but the knowledge it imparted. I had something new – something I did not have before. I became a greater whole, and knowledge is a big responsibility. The library taught me kindness. From witnessing the kindness of others, to respecting the space, staff, and other patrons of the library. The library taught me empathy – to learn about and try to understand others. All of these are long, hard lessons. Recently, it seems these have been forgotten or pushed aside in haste and annoyance. They are too important to ignore. We need to learn, connect, and understand the world and each other more than ever. There are very few places left in which to achieve this.
What I usually hear in stories extolling the virtues of libraries are tales of storytime inspiring literacy at a young age, or elders having a place to gather, or people learning skills they wouldn’t have an opportunity to learn otherwise. I do not want to diminish those outstanding benefits. They are all important. I simply wish to add another facet.
In life, I was angry, bored, lonely, and self-destructive. A library is none of those things. It is creative, interesting, communal, and full of growth. The library for me was acceptance, escape, and hope. It contained stories and freedom. It was a place to rejuvenate – build the armor back up to face the world. It is too hyperbolic to say the library saved my life. It alone did not (help, time, family, and finding my people were all part of that). What the library did was give me space, some control, and the opportunity to flex and grow into personhood.
So after all I have told you, it must seem obvious that I became a librarian. Well, in fact, for most of my life I did not know that being a librarian was even a career option. I don’t ever remember having a librarian at career day. I did not start my post-academic life anywhere near libraries. The exact path to them is a longer story than this already long story can handle. Needless to say, I arrived and I have stayed.
Why? Why am I so passionate about libraries of all types? Why do I consider these my people and libraries my home? In the deepest part of my core, I believe that knowledge is power, and that EVERYONE should have access to and an understanding of how to use information (notice I said information, not books. Information comes in so many forms that even just knowing what to look for, in what form, and where to find it is a challenge all on its own). Through this access and eventual understanding, I became who I am now. I was offered freedom, control, and escape in libraries. But ultimately, I learned how to come back to real life, live life, and be a better person in the world. I grew up in libraries.