Monday, November 28, 2011

Back in the Stacks


Time for another confession. A transgression almost as serious as removing the tag from the mattress. I can see your wheels turning. “Did he knowingly receive those videos of movies his Dad taped from TV? Feed his parking meter? Help himself to thirds at the Trader Joe’s sample table?” No, I’m afraid it’s something far more serious.

I let my library card lapse.

There. Now I feel better. And I really feel better because I went to the library today, confessed my sins and awaited my punishment. Had it lapsed so far that I wasn’t in the computer system, I could have applied for a new card for free. As it turns out, I was in the system and because of that, I had to pay ONE DOLLAR to be re-instated! Oh, the shame! The agony! And yet it helped cleanse my guilty soul. Now, with one card tucked into my wallet and a nifty mini-card attachable to a keychain, I was back in the stacks, baby! Oh, how sweet it was!

Fact is that I had loved the library just about my whole life. I went habitually as a child, spent some of high school and college working at the carrells and tables, feeling as if the mere presence of those books surrounding me was enough to seep into my skin, sitting at the epicenter of a knowledge energy-field. It was an odd combination of private and public, each reader in their own world as the black lines on white paper transported them to a world of imagination, of ideas, of places and people brought to life by the acrobatic feats of the author and yet, all of us gathered together, keeping silent company with fellow travelers with their furrowed brows, smiles of imaginative delight or mouths open in book-soaked stupor. I loved the smell of the books, the maze of the stacks, the mythos of the glasses-on hair-up librarian waiting to be swept away into the larger world. I loved the sensation of wandering in search of some Holy Grail or Philosopher’s Stone or bearded storyteller to keep me company, the anticipation and wondering what would appear, the satisfaction of that pile of books in my hand at the check-out desk.

And so when I arrived in San Francisco as a young adult a couple of lifetimes ago, I continued to be a loyal patron of the library. I mostly frequented the main library, thumbing through those drawers of file cards when I had something in mind, wandering when I didn’t. I discovered the musical score collection, the record collection and occasionally went into the deep tombs of the reference archives to find something yet more obscure—and thus, more valuable. I loved that old library, with its columns and wide steps ascending to the stacks like a Jacob’s ladder to literary heaven. I love the thick oak tables and yes, before I wax too nostalgic, sometimes the odor from the homeless seeking refuge was a bit too strong for my taste. But I passed many a pleasurable hour there and came home with many memorable books to help form my fledgling self. And they did, from the novels to the non-fiction, the poetry, the recordings.

So when did I stop going and why? The first blow was building the new main library. I just never warmed up to it. It felt more like a big store in a mall, everything too spread out and too well-lit and hard to find things. And the computers swallowed the file cards and in the children’s library, swallowed the kids more inclined to the screens than the books. It just felt too big and impersonal and still does.

But the branch libraries are cosy— why not just go there? Well, I did for a long time with my kids when they were young. But when I started reading non-fiction, I liked making notes on the pages. If I found a good novel, I liked to pass it on to other family members. As for poetry, it simply needed repeated readings. And as a budding author, I got the notion that it’s good to actually buy books and support authors. And so after many years of finding myself more in bookstores (until they began to disappear one-by-one—that’s a whole other Blog), I let my card lapse.

Why reclaim it now? Well, the kids are gone, there’s no more room on my bookshelves and a friend just recommended two new novels that are only out in hardcover. Too impatient to wait, I thought I’d find them at the library. So off to the computer to see where they were and found out that they were on hold by some 100 people in line before me! Oh well. Off into the stacks and back out with something that called out to me. No more little card to fill out and tuck in the back, the file cards are long gone, but the librarians are still nice and helpful and some wear their hair down.

So thank you, public libraries, for welcoming me back into the fold. You are one of the finest institutions in modern civilization, adapting with the times while still offering free access to all. Well, almost free. I’m still hurting from that dollar charge.

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