I visited my hometown library a lot as a kid. During the summers, I rode my bike to the local “town pool.” We had a number of lovely ponds and lakes in my hometown, but they were out in the woods. The “town pool” was a brook that was seasonally stopped up by a dam of concrete. I believe they eventually had to shut down the town pool when they realized neighborhood septic systems were leaking into the brook.
I rode my bike to the town pool, but on the way, I stopped at the library to pick up Nancy Drew books. My mom had read Nancy Drew as a kid, and our library had an impressive collection of Nancy Drew stories. I spent an entire summer reading them all. I picked one up one day, read it in a night, and dropped it off the next day to pick up a new one.
Our library was in one of those impossibly old New England buildings. It was built entirely of some dark stone, probably granite, and it looked so heavy it was a marvel it didn’t sink into the earth. The stone steps leading to the entrance were worn smooth by a hundred years of footsteps. It was filled with the musty, sweet scent of decaying paper, ancientness and oxygen deprivation.
I stopped going to the town pool (see sewage, above) and I quickly aged out of Nancy Drew and moved onto Stephen King. I also entered middle school, where visiting the library meant I had a paper to write. And the research needed to write grueling middle school papers was enough to squeeze any last gasp of recreational joy out of going to the library. I don’t believe I entered a public library for perhaps 25 years.
I entered college and by then I had the money to buy whatever books I wanted to read. And while I did occasionally go the the library for college papers, it usually was a fruitless endeavor. When I had a paper to write on say, the historical probability of The Tain, I went to my university’s library. And I searched through the stacks, where I had to turn on the lights as I entered the catacombs, lest I get hopelessly lost in the dark, and I actually found the section on Irish history. The books were older than my great great grandmother, and they were written in Gaelic. Being the diligent academic that I was, I went to The Coop and bought several glossy coffee table books on Irish myth and folklore to write my paper.
So if I visited libraries, it was because they were pretty, or old, or it was like visiting a different culture. A quiet, ancient culture. It wasn’t to read books.
In the past couple of years, I have been thinning out the books I own. After 15 years, after all my relocations, I still had the books about Irish myth and folklore. And all the other books I bought through college. Now instead of buying the books I want to read, I’ve been going back to the library. It’s been a joyous rediscovery. I’m actually reading more than I have in years.
One of the first things we did when we moved here was get library cards at the Astoria Public Library. The Astoria Public Library is fairly tiny and has a substantial amount of space devoted to the kids section. It’s a small town library. And while the building isn’t ancient like my hometown, it feels the same. It smells the same. The books are probably the same.
They have computers to check books out, but they still stamp the date inside to tell you when the book is due. I have been finding it fascinating to see the history of the book before it came to me.
April of 1996 was right about the time I was lost in the stacks in college.