All Under One Roof
Updated: Mar 14
Oftentimes the formative places of our youth shrink as we get older, dimming like a shadow compared to the prestige of their rose-tinted memory. Or they might altogether disappear when the bulldozers arrive to make room for the next iteration of a house or school. Recently, I found the opposite to be true when I stopped by the neighborhood library I frequented from elementary school to college. The building hadn't increased in size, but the magnitude of its impact on my outlook and character came into greater focus.
From the children's stories to the rows of VHS tapes to the oversized book section, I spent time in just about every aisle while growing up, entertained and enlightened by writers from across time, place and human experience.
I remember the comfy seats in the children's corner, flipping through tales from the Berenstein Bears. Other times I'd take home a movie (The Great Muppet Caper was a favorite) in a case that first had to be unlocked at the front desk, or browse a catalogue predicting how much our Beanie Baby toys would allegedly be worth someday. One year, my splotchy rendition of Monet's water lily paintings hung on a cork board beside the work of other young local artists.
As an adolescent, I grew enthralled with the library's movie section. I learned about Oscar nominations, eras of cinema history, acting legends from Humphry Bogart to Halle Berry, films from Casablanca to Contact, and the art of places with other library visitors roving the shelf while holding my head sideways to read the DVD case spines.
When I earned my driver's license, I began to drive myself to the library. By that time, I had graduated to the other half of the building, on the opposite end from the kids' section, where the shelves were taller and the books were less colorful. Instead of juvenile titles like Holes or Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, I was searching out non-fiction books on controversial topics or biographies of famous leaders, then compiling notes on index cards for research papers. I also looked for fantasy and historical fiction stories, reading classics like Uncle Tom's Cabin and Lord of the Rings, and perused science fiction books in the oversized shelves containing detailed diagrams of make-believe starships.
In college, I read books on theology, human psychology and sexuality, and tomes on poverty and community development. I studied for exams at the quiet tables in the corner farthest from the bustle of the checkout counter. Eventually, I discovered the resource room at the back of the library, where I voted in a presidential election for the first time.
At the front desk, I learned to ask a librarian for help. I remember signing the back of my first library card in confident cursive and trying to memorize my home address. Increasingly over time, I would run into people from other spheres of life, contributing to a sense of community. The neighborhood was populated with predominantly highly-educated families, so in a way it was a siloed environment. But eventually my social awareness grew, and a library was as good a place as any to become aware of cultural divisions and inequities. I noticed people waiting at the bus stop at the entrance to the parking lot, recognized visitors in wheelchairs, observed folks using the library computers to fill out job applications, witnessed the range of topics contained in card catalogues, saw racy movie and romance novel covers, browsed books from religions other than the one I practiced. In short, within the library's walls my horizons were broadened and perceptions sharpened.
Looking back, my years spent in this library also paralleled the rise of the internet—what many would tout as an inexhaustible, invisible library in each of our pockets. But in all its wildness and vastness, the cloud of information at our fingertips can leave us frantic, disjointed and not an ounce wiser.
As with the internet, you can’t plop a kid (or adult) in the middle of a library and expect them to emerge a better person. But with gentle guidance, eyes wide with curiosity, hunger for a good story and genuine conversation, a well-resourced library is as revolutionary a tool as the internet, even today. What’s more, a library creates a physical sanctuary, offering access to a wealth of ideas for anyone and everyone, all under one roof. This anchoring location with its pages and people (and yes, technology, too) can foster a sense of belonging and an enriching point of intersection for our various interests and paths of learning.
In his book Palaces for the People, author Eric Klinenberg writes:
"Today, as cities and suburbs reinvent themselves, and as cynics claim that government has nothing good to contribute to that process, it's important that institutions like libraries get the recognition they deserve. After all, the root of the word "library," liber; means both "book" and "free." Libraries stand for and exemplify something that needs defending: the public institutions that -- even in an age of atomization and inequality -- serve as bedrocks of civil society. Libraries are the kinds of places where ordinary people with different backgrounds, passions, and interests can take part in a living democratic culture. They are the kinds of places where the public, private, and philanthropic sectors can work together to reach for something higher than the bottom line."
With this in mind, let’s participate in and care for our shared public places with the respect they deserve. We will find them as pleasant and inspiring as the spirit with which we treat each other.