Saturday, August 11, 2012

In Praise of Public Libraries

Today I made two huge steps into adulthood: I bought my first car and I got my first public library card since I was a small child and had to have my mother co-sign for me.

I found myself in the library completely by accident. When I went to that Kafka-esque place of nearly eternal torment, the DMV, to register my car after I bought it (more on that escapade shortly), the tired-eyed woman behind the counter informed me that my license only has my PO box, not my physical address, and I would need proof of physical address to register the car.

The problem is, of course, that I'm basically a gypsy and there is little or no proof of my physically having lived anywhere in the last four years. There is the occasional myth here and there, the odd grocery list, I'm sure, laying in odd corners, a pair of shoes, perhaps, or loose change in the corner of a musty closet which marks my stays in the various homes and hostels which have welcomed me, but you can't give any of that to the DMV. I myself have taken away only a few used books, a keychain with a smiley face, and a sketchbook I accidently pilfered from one of the Boonzaaijer children last summer (sorry, Nathaniel).

So with the immanent threat of the DMV closing up shop, I scampered around Christiansburg looking for any available public computer for which to scour the internet for electronic bank statements or some other legitimate proof of address. The search led, of course, to the public library--which I circled about 4 times before finding it because I'm a ridiculously incompetent navigator. I think the scads of giggling and chanting middle school girls waving signs for their car wash distracted me.

I hadn't been in a library since, well, paying my fines right before graduation, I guess. Those of you who know me know that I love libraries. I spent far more time in the library at college than any other place, including my dorm room. It was my social network, my sanctuary, my romance. But public libraries are a different matter than collegiate ones. Before I started public and then private school, beginning in 8th grade, our public library in Greenville was the only place my mother let me ride my bike by myself, and I think I read everything worth reading in the juvenile section, and a lot that wasn't.  I discovered Redwall there, Avi, Lloyd Alexander. Don't get me wrong: my loyalties lie with Hillsdale's Mossey Library all the way, but there's something not quite right about the college library. It's the same thing that's just not quite right about college in general: everyone's the same age. There aren't any fat little 10 year old chatting it up with the pretty librarian about some magical literature series, the next edition of which isn't coming out till October--an eternity! There aren't literary retired women on outings with each other perusing the nonfiction section in silence. You can't get a "Friends of the Library" totebag (which I'm planning on buying as soon as I settle down somewhere). In your average college library, Little girls don't guiltily discover sex via the copy of Cosmo shoved in the corner of the magazine rack and then get bored and move on to better things like man-eating freshwater fish and alien abductions. They don't host lunch book circles because students bring in coffee and sandwhiches anyway.

In other words, as lovely as the university library is, I realized today that it lacks that beautiful superfluity of a public library.  Without the university library, there is not university. It is a bulwark, a cornerstone of its institution. You walk in and you can feel a solemn necessity easy mistaken for florescent lighting tugging at your corneas.

Contrast this with the public library: it is a center of it's community's culture, and the beautiful thing about culture is that it's completely unnecessary. No one will starve to death without a public library; stock markets will not crumble; the grocery store will stay in business. Like opera or sculpture, it represents something essential to the human spirit--more essential, perhaps, than the necessities themselves, but it isn't actually necessary. And therein lies its glory. You walk into the public library and there you find a microcosm of the community: young mothers, little children, high school students on Facebook, old men with the morning paper. Everyone together in this warmly hushed silence that you just won't find anywhere else. The public library just about all we have left in America as far as a public commons founded on leisure rather than consumerism.

I walked out with Natasha Trethewey's new collection of poetry (she's the current poet laureate), a really fun and badly written book on the history of numbers, and the film No Country for Old Men. As I drove off in my beige '99 Camry, I felt a kind of peace and excitement for adult life. It's easy for me to look back on college as a kind of golden age of my intellectual life. I had friends there who knew more than I do about just about everything, and I read so that I could talk to them about ideas. We spoke each other's language in terms of personalism, poetry, and eudaimonia. We'd see each other weeping blood at 1 am and then again over breakfast the next day. We drank bourbon and continued to talk homework on the weekends because we loved it so much. And now that's over.

But the library lives on, I remembered today, and I find that comforting. In fact, I think my new relationship with the library will be much more healthy in this new adult phase of my life. I used to joke that Mossey Library was like a bad boyfriend whom I couldn't leave. Now I can resume the childhood friendship founded on love rather than necessity. I can read because I love it, not because I need to, and I like that feeling. That's the joy of this blog, too--rediscovering how much fun writing can be, that I really do love it.


  1. Serena, this is just about perfect. I just got a beige car and a public library card, too (and I'm heading to the DMV on Monday—wish we could commiserate over a sunny breakfast), and this sums up almost everything that made me happy about it (with the addition of the fact that my card has cowboys on it). I miss Mossey so, so much, but I think the Foothills Branch Library is going to be a big blessing in the next couple of years.

    They did make me prove physical residence to get a card, though. I had picked up the mail on my way out, and there was a ripped up package from the used copy of The Joy of Cooking (wonderful to read!) that I had ordered, so that was lucky. And then I was accosted on the way out by a lady collecting signatures for a woman running for the school board, so I felt like a real native.

    Only one thing that makes me sad — the amount of junk that libraries stock. Good grief. And thank goodness for interlibrary loan.

  2. I had to wait for mail to get a library card!

    So, Monday, here cometh my card to the Kingshighway Branch. It's also my first card since I was a kid. I don't remember getting my first card.

    A blessing in a way to hear of the struggles of fellow bibliophiles. We shall persevere!

    Great post.