Back in the days of the dinosaurs when I was young and walked five miles to school (my bare feet ravaged by the snow), and did my homework by candlelight, people used libraries. The large bookstore chains didn’t exist. If you wanted to buy a book, you went to a department store, or a 5 & 10, or the drugstore where you could always pick up a mystery or romance paperback from the rotating book racks at the front of the store. If you were very lucky, you belonged to the Book of the Month Club, and every month a package arrived from Camp Hill, Pennsylvania delivering the latest best sellers. But most people I knew got their books at the library.
One of my earliest memories is of visiting the library. I was three, and though the concrete staircase leading to the front door was not long, the steps seemed ENORMOUSLY high. I fastened my hand to the rough iron railing and, lifting my knees as high as I could, pulled myself up and over each riser. I thought I’d never reach the front door.
I can’t remember the inside of that library, only the front steps. But I can see very clearly the interior of the Katherine Drexel Library, which I think of as the library of my youth. It was next door to my middle school, and I went there every day when classes ended. Sometimes I did research for a project, pulling the necessary volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica from the shelf and squishing its large pages beneath the lid of the copy machine, dropping dime-after-dime into the slot, hoping for unblurred reproductions. Mostly, I wandered the perimeter of the Young Adult section where books were displayed face-up on ledge-like shelves. Occasionally, I roamed the children’s section, my head tilted to read the spines. When I found an interesting title, I’d pull it from the shelf. That’s how I discovered the Finn Family Moomintroll books, a series that enthralled me.
I never entered the library with a specific book in mind. I waited for one to catch my eye and then I’d open it, read the first page, and hope to be captured. All through my middle school years I chose books this way, reading my way through Paul Zindel, S.E. Hinton, and, then, discovering mysteries, everything I could find by Phyllis Whitney.
I still choose library books like this, though finding an unheard of great book is almost impossible with news of books all over the web.
I wish more people knew the joys of using the library. Our libraries are languishing — in some communities from lack of use, in all communities from lack of funds. Many people don’t need to go to a library to do research; they can do that from a home computer. They can easily and cheaply buy books off the web, or from a chain store, or if they’re lucky, an independent bookseller.
But libraries are more than repositories of books. Beyond the treasures they hold, libraries, like schools, are the souls of a community. They may be quiet places, but they are alive. When I enter one, I never know who I’ll see, I never know what I’ll discover. Every visit is like a treasure hunt, and I always find gold.