The Egalitarian Oasis of the Library

A couple of days ago, I desperately wanted to read a book recommended to me by memoirist and debut novelist Nora Gallagher,* The Situation and The Story, by Vivian Gornick.  I accessed the library computer from home, discovered the system had two copies—one downtown, but checked out, the other at a branch I’d never heard of, in a weary neighborhood on the city’s east side.   After supper, I drove over there, and entered another world.

The branch is located in a mostly abandoned strip mall from the seventies, taking up a civilized space about the size of an old Duckwall’s or Ace Hardware.  At first, I thought I’d go the address wrong, because the mall was so deserted.  But there, at the far, far end of the lot, was a cluster of cars like palm trees around an oasis. 

It was seven o’clock on a Monday evening, and the place was packed. Packed.  I saw a lot of teens and pre-teens, but also a lot of women and a few older men.  They lined the computer banks, row after row. They sat at tables and talked to each other.  Books in a language I didn’t recognize and decided later must be Korean were propped up on the displays alongside glossy hardcover Spanish-language editions, alongside the latest bestsellers from Nora Roberts and James Patterson in English.  A huge young adult collection, I noticed, wandering through the aisles.  Fans blew overhead, sending that beloved, dusty scent of books dizzily into the air. A patient, overworked man with a slightly red face manned the desk.

I wanted to cry.  It was quick and sharp, a sudden wave of intense emotion welling into my throat, my mouth.   At that moment, I didn’t take time to analyze it, since it would be inappropriate (even for me) to be so emotional in public, and just squished it down.  I found the Gornick, then wandered down the fiction stacks to see if they had any copies of my books (they did). and headed for the desk, admiring a lushly beautiful young woman speaking Spanish and the slave of a youth who was reading to her in English, and the sharp coyote face of a woman making notes from the computer screen in front of her.  A boy of about twelve, dusky and plump, with a voice so soft I could barely hear him, asked for something of the desk clerk, who explained to him how whatever it was worked.  A cluster of tiny teenagers came in, chattering in an Asian language, again probably Korean, since when I left I noticed Korean grocery stores and a Korean church just down the street.

I stepped up to the desk.  "Busy night!" I said. "And you sure have a lot of computers here."

He nodded his very Scottish head, red-faced and red-headed and grizzled beard. "Fifteen!" he said proudly. "And they’re that busy every day, from the moment we open the doors until the time we close." 

I nodded. 

"You can reserve one if you want.  I recommend it."

"Thank you," I said. "That’s great."   I checked out my books. The memoir how-to, and another book I found on Edith Wharton’s travel writing.

As I walked to my car, I thought of my three computers. I thought of the I-phone, $500, plus monthly service fees.  I got in my car and felt winded and grateful, for both my life and the library that isn’t in it, that oasis of computers and books in many languages.  Nothing fancy, just a lot of shelves in a forgotten strip mall, and a good electronic connection across the street from blocks and blocks of affordable apartments.  It’s a world I don’t enter very often anymore.  But once, I lived there.   It was before computers took over our lives, and I used the library for finding books, for studying craft, for reading and reading and reading, absorbing all the things that were completely outside my blue collar world.  I found myself in libraries.  Without them, I could not have found the life I found.

I know sometimes people complain about computers in libraries, but consider how impossible it is for a minimum wage worker to have a computer.  Even if you could afford the computer, by finding a reconditioned model, maybe, or saving up for a big sale, how will you afford the access to the Internet?  It suddenly seemed breathlessly, incredibly wonderful to me to see all those people accessing the Internet there in the library. What are they using it for? I don’t know.  Email.  Research. Job searches.  To see photos of a niece, far away in Korea, or maybe Mexico.  To stay in touch.  To read about a subject that fascinates them.  To get a break from life.  All the reasons I use the Internet. 

As I drove home, leaving behind one world and entering another by driving fifteen or twenty minutes up the road, a world were there is probably not a single house that doesn’t have a computer, and probably most of them have many computers, I thought again what a marvelous, amazing thing our library systems are. Each one is an oasis of hope and knowledge and possibility, representing the best of us, the most democratic institution in our world.

It seems appropriate on this 4th of July holiday to say, VIVA the library system, and viva the Ruth Holley Branch in particular, because it didn’t just have all those things for everybody else, it had the book I most desperately wanted to read, too.

Do you have a favorite library story? Tell us about it. 

* I heard Gallagher in Albuquerque at the librarian’s day I attended. Then she happened to be in Santa Barbara, where she lives, and happened to sit beside me at the  booksigning.  I also have her books now in my TBR pile.

6 thoughts on “The Egalitarian Oasis of the Library

  1. Lovely story, Barbara.
    I think public libraries are the absolute symbol of civilization.
    I write the kind of books I wrote because I discovered Georgette Heyer through my local library when I was eleven.

    But my favorite true-life library story is by Eva Ibbotson, a wonderful, luscious writer from the UK who set a lot of her adult books in war-affected Europe. Thankfully, they’re reissuing her adult books, which have been out of print for years.
    She tells her story here:

  2. Rosalie

    My favorite library memory is of one on Alameda Island in Ca., in the spring of 1960. My husband was stationed there in the navy, I was a young mother with another on the way, and we had NO money, no friends and were 1000 miles from our families-and yet I felt free and adventurous. My first home away, my chance to be a grown-up (I was 18). In our tiny little Naval housing unit, with scant furnishings and an adored, brilliant little daughter, we made our first real home. Since we had both lived all our lives inland, the sound of foghorns was as foreign and delightful to us as an exotic fruit is to a gourmand.
    As i said we had no money, but in the first week of walking the small community, pushing said darling daughter in her stroller, I discovered a tiny library in a converted old church complete with steeple and white clapboard siding. It became our favorite place to go, visit with the nice older librarians who also thought our little girl was wonderful and the first books ever checked out to read to her. In addition, it was my first “book group”, as my husband and I discovered we had like tastes in much of our reading favorites, so we could each check out, read and discuss many of the same books. It has been 47 years, but that little library is as alive in my mind as the new and elaborate one built in our community recently. I had been a library patron since I was a child myself, but that one will always be THE library in my heart.

  3. Oh, that’s a lovely story of the library in the church! And beautifully told. Thank you.

  4. Today’s library is the Internet cafe for the common man. Any city council working their annual budget needs to take a field trip to their local libraries to see their tax dollars at work before they declare that libraries are dead and shut them down (as happened here in Euless, a suburb of Ft. worth, recently).

    I was delighted to discover the newer branches of my public library have plugs smack dab in the middles of the tables for notebook computers. Not to mention wireless. Another place I can call “my office.” 🙂

    I got my MLS a few years ago to expand my research and technology capabilities, and though I may never be a library employee, I fell in love with libraries all over again in the process.

  5. Kari! I just went to your website and saw your (wonderful!) photos. How funny that you’re here, too.

    Julie, that’s so, true. So important. It’s up to all of us to be aware and alert to what’s happening with our libraries.

  6. Kari

    I found your blog a couple months ago & have enjoyed reading your entries. Then I read today’s post & said, “Wait…the Ruth Holley Branch?! Does she live HERE?” 🙂 Small world. That used to be my branch many years ago, but I haven’t been down there in a long time. I love libraries. The old archive room in the downtown library is the best!

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