One for the books

I love my library. And … I hate my library.

First of all, I think being offered the privilege of reading one’s way through a building full of books is a fabulous idea. Apparently, we have the Romans to thank for that. History tells us that they made scrolls available to patrons of “the baths.” As a footnote, I will not credit the Romans with the ability to laminate, but guess access to these scrolls was available after a very stern, hefty, Hellenic woman with a pinched expression and even pinchier sandals first examined your mitts and noted that you had towel dried off enough to handle the goods.

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The public libraries as we know them today might need a nod of appreciation toward the great British Empire. Noted among the upper class, the Working Joes—after absorbing the brunt of the mid 19th century’s fun festival of war, insurrection, bankruptcy and scarcity—were apparently bringing down the country’s weighty, highbrowed reputation, mostly attributed to the cachet of good breeding. A rise in IQ was exactly what the aristocracy wanted country needed.

The drive toward establishing public libraries—state run and taxpayer funded—was a growing movement. Matthew Battles, a senior researcher with metaLAB at Harvard, states that:

“It was in these years of class conflict and economic terror that the public library movement swept through Britain, as the nation’s progressive elite recognized that the light of cultural and intellectual energy was lacking in the lives of commoners.”

Time to hit the books, gents.

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I’m guessing the famous Scotsman, Andrew Carnegie, grew convinced that draping himself in the colors of silver, gold and green was unflattering, and gave away barrelfuls of anything with those pigments to communities agreeable to a few ground rules and a hope for informational ease of access. 3000 libraries later, I think the world owes him a giant thank you card. Feel free to sign it down below in the comments section. I’ll forward it on to him later.

Today, if we are to include all types of libraries (school, special, academic, government, public, etc.) we’d find the world is lucky enough to house shelf after shelf of books in roughly one million constructed centers. This number is an estimate from the OCLC (Online Computer Library Center), a group of folks who love to count as much as they love to read.

As a kid, it was a Saturday ritual that after piano lessons, the next stop was the public library. It wasn’t for me, but rather a stop off for my dad so he could get his weekly hit from his dealer librarian. Yeah, he had it bad. There were times when he was lost in the stacks for so long that I started ripping out and chewing on the pictures in cookbooks merely for sustenance. And as long as the book wasn’t a new addition to the shelves, it usually had some splatter of the previous patron’s dinner mottled across a few of the recipe pages.

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Once I moved on to college and beyond, every town I found myself employed in for longer than a matinee showing and a midnight review also found me slumped against the door of the nearest local library, waiting for the doors to open first thing the next morning. Memorizing the new string of numbers on my library card was the single most important thing to do. Then I could find an apartment.

As a parent of two children—when they were children—I attempted to make visits to the neighborhood library closely mimic an experience of meeting God at the Magic Kingdom, only without all the genuflecting and endless snaking lines thrown in. When I discovered the limit on checking out books was 75 items per patron, I think I pointed toward the back wall and said, “We’ll take that section.”

What I enjoyed most from this period of time in my life was coming upstairs to do that last sweeping check of children and the switching off of bedside lamps where I would undoubtedly find a mound of discarded books at the foot of each bed, spilling onto the floor. More often than not, one was splayed across their chests, the plot interrupted by drowsy eyes and impatient dreams.

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Today, I’m rarely in charge of checking out books for anyone other than myself, but even so, my visits tally to three times a week. I walk in with an armload of books:

One is nearly read, and I finish the last 13 pages while waiting in line, continually gesturing folks to step in front of me.

Four are due today, but I’m only one half/two thirds/six pages into the stories and will need to check with the circulation desk to see if there’s any way I can please, pretty please, I’ll get on my knees check them out again as long as there is no hold on them currently.

And three are nonfiction and much needed for research pertaining to my books, my blog, my mental health and child rearing. Always, childrearing.

I carry a hefty bag of coins which I have labeled contrition cash, or penitence pennies, and hand the librarian the loot, along with a sheepish apology for my sins against the system.

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It’s why I hate the library. Their generosity has made me a green-eyed glutton, a piggish patron, a barbaric bibliomaniac. I subscribe to all their email lists.

Fiction Best Sellers!

Staff Picks!

Books Approved by Oprah, Obama and Oh My God You Just Have To Read These!

There is so much guilt I suffer because of my library. But it’s really writers who are at fault. On the whole, we’ve got way too many stories, way too many messages, way too many words.

But I shall read on.

And I hope you will too.


Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery (here) and what we all talked about down in the pub (here). And to see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone–click here.

40 thoughts on “One for the books

    • Now if that isn’t the best toast I’ve heard in a long time! That’s going to become a regular in my house. I’m almost giddy with anticipation to see the kids and the heavy eye-rolling it’s going to produce. Cheers, Ardys!

  1. Rob’s competition number 2 : The caption of one of this week’s drawings is the title of the first chapter of a well-known children’s book. Which one? First correct answer gets a bookish doodle from the pencil that was carved from a human funny bone 🙂

  2. Loved reading about the evolution of the libraries. My trips to the library have drastically deceased due to kindle and also due to busy life. Otherwise I can relate to all your fun trips to the library and trying to get the books reissued over and over. Thanks for the lovely post. I love your style of writing which always brings a smile to my face. take care and God bless.

  3. I can fully feel with you. I have been begging more then once for an extension when it came to lending out books. Love the way you describe the different trips to the library!

    • Thank you, Patrizia. Although the libraries around my neck of the woods hold more than I can manage, I can only imagine how life would change for me if I had access to the city full that you have! I think I’d find myself setting up a tent in the corner of the stacks and redirecting my mail to the London Library. Cheers!

  4. The local town library was one of my favourite places while growing up, it was in a fabulous old (ish) building too with fantastic heavy wooden swing doors. Until they refurbished it and moved the entrance, boo! I know it was more functional, but it was pokey, round the back of the building and didn’t give the library the prominence I felt it deserved.
    The library expanded my reading curiosity further than mere ‘literature’ – the wonderful worlds of science fiction, crime novels and so on were all handily packaged so I could find them when I felt like it.

  5. Shelley,

    It is simply amazing to watch my children enter the doors of our local library and go from mach three with their hair on fire, screaming at each other, yelling verses of songs, cartoons or quotes (rather pages) from their latest reading of Calvin and Hobbes and then enter the library and immediately render into complete silence and focus. It is as if once they have passed through the doors of the kingdom of imagination, they seem to pay homage to the wrote words, pictures and the plethora of characters that take them on a journey far and beyond where only light will bend.

    I believe that it was the angel Gabriel that suggested to God to create the library, as it seems it is truly the only place on earth that a child will be completely silent, giving serenity and sanity, if even for a brief moment, to the parent.

    “A public library is the most enduring of memorials, the trustiest monument for the preservation of an event or a name or an affection; for it, and it only, is respected by wars and revolutions, and survives them.”
    – Letter to the Millicent [Rogers] Library, 22 February 1894

    – Mark Twain

    As always Shell, beautiful words. Off to practice the cello, after, of course, we go roller skating in our Halloween costumes first (who wouldn’t roller skate in snow anyway, right?).

    Much respect,

    Stoshu 🙂

    • Wait … Gabriel? With the horn, Gabriel? Silence, serenity and sanity? Boy, that certainly doesn’t sound like someone I know. 😉 But I love learning new things from you. And I love the Twain quote – never read that one.
      And now I also have this lovely image of three cherubic angels dressed … like Hell’s angels(?) for Halloween and on roller skates. I love it. Squish them for me.
      And when it’s time to rehair your bow, you can make one of them a long devil’s tail to go with their costume.

  6. Shelley dear… I love & adore books just as much, and NOW – MOST RECENTLY (my own Mother had to tell me about this!) – I am hooked on ebooks from my library! Soooo amazing… I am now (recently) a card carrying member in Dallas, TX and can read my e-books (FOR FREE) here in Costa Rica! Amazing stuff, indeed. Happy reading, friend!

  7. Shelley,

    Gabriel, as in the archangle that played the trumpet and used his finger to silence humans… you know, that’s how we supposedly got our dimpple in our upper lip. It was a simple “shhh” with a touch of Gabriel’s finger to our lip to help us keep secrets of the Guf, or The Hall of Souls.

    Much love,

    S 🙂

    • Oh, I wish I had a finger like Gabriel’s. Think of all the magic I could do with politicians. Maybe not to help them keep secrets, but rather to silence the guff that comes out of them. Love it.

  8. Lovely meditation on the library. I am still gnashing my teeth at the wholesale export of books from our university library to “offsite storage facilities.” This is so we can all benefit from more administrative offices, coffee shops (yes, food and drink are now allowed in the sacred space, much to my horror) and “interactive study areas.” Gone are the days of serendipitous discoveries in the stacks. Now I have to order most of my books. Browsing the electronic catalogue just isn’t the same.

  9. Heartbreaking! Oh how sad that the possibility of adventure has been removed, but perhaps the idea of falling upon ideas is not academic enough? I’d set up a student protest. Supply free lattes and I bet you’d find support. Misspell a few of the placards to make a point about the importance of available dictionaries. 🙂

  10. I have the same problem with penitence pennies. I almost always forget the due date for books. I’ve currently got a stack 8 books thick sitting on my floor (that I needed for a research project on Calvin Coolidge) that I keep looking at and thinking “I should probably bring these back now.” Actually, my biggest problem with public libraries is that I can’t keep the books!

  11. I imagine the librarians love you and your enthusiasm for books! And it’s wonderful that you helped instill in your children an appreciation for reading as well. I was actually tempted to go back to school to obtain a degree in library science. Maybe one day!

  12. What a dream. I’m going to live vicariously through you then, okay, Miranda? If I could go back in time to do it all over again, I would definitely choose librarian. Right after shredded cheese expert and chocolate beer specialist. 😉

  13. Just don’t see how electronics and cyberspace can replace meandering through the stacks, pulling out a book, perusing a few pages, putting it back, going to another section, finding another book, pulling it out, perusing a few pages, finding yourself engrossed, whether it’s a new subject in the numbered section (non-fiction) or a new author (in the fiction section)..

    • I totally agree, Tana. The problem I have nowadays is that I’ve got to have a plan. Given access to the stacks, hours pass, I’ve forgotten to pick up someone for a dentist appointment, I’ve neglected to pick up food for an empty fridge and laundry has stacked up to such a height, everyone is using swimsuits for underwear.
      I like the library way too much for the comfort of my family.
      I can not go techie. But many wish I would. 😉

  14. In my good ol’ childhood days the district library was a treasure trove for me and i used to look forward to my weekly visits. But then life got busier & with books being available online, I hardly find time to drop by in a library these days. Thanks for this post and bringing back some good memories 🙂

  15. Yes, libraries don’t get the attention they did in the past, but I think they’ll always have a place. We have a great library near our home and my kids love to go pick out books to read–it’s great. Thanks for another thought-provoking post. I always enjoy reading your blog.

    • What a day maker to see your kind words, Gary. I think as writers we all need to cling to anything that will sustain us, inspire us, and move us to want to read further, and then interpret our new findings throughout the filter of our own words. I cannot imagine a world without libraries. I need the physical experience to propel me through life as much as I need oxygen to propel me through the pantry to locate my stash of chocolate. Life will end if both are absent.

  16. I will nod so much at anyone even partly responsible for libraries that I will undoubtedly look like a bobblehead doll. And I’m OK with that. I’ve been a bibliophile from Day 1, so much so that when I was a little girl, I knew where on the shelves all the books about horses were. We always had books around when I was growing up and my mom read aloud to us for years. What a blessing that was!! Of course, my parents also cursed me with their predilection for buying books, mostly now at Half Price Books or library sales, and when we moved, the movers remarked more than once while loading and more than once when unloading that we certainly had a lot of books. I’m more than OK with that.

    Our library only allowed 50 books, so both girls got cards in short order. Of course, home schooling is the perfect excuse to have even more books. Before we moved, I found a good home school group home for over 14 boxes of books and other materials. One of my dearest hopes is that someday we’ll have a home with enough space for a library, where I can have all the books out on shelves, rather than just in boxes. Until then, thank God (and I mean that in all sincerity) for libraries, the only tax increase I’ll vote for these days!


  17. Girl after my own heart, Janet!
    And I bet there are a handful of moms and dads out there who are counting their lucky stars they were the recipient of your generosity. You’re exactly the kind of library I would like to have – the kind that says, “Like these books? Then they’re yours to keep.” 😉

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