Libraries are wonderful things. We take them for granted, but really, they are amazing. Think of it: the first “circulating” (as opposed to private) libraries were similar to the video rental stores we had until Netflix took over: you could go to the library to either buy books or pay a subscription fee to check them out. In some countries, such as in the Middle East, bookstores are still called libraries.
Although the original circulating libraries were intended to be accessible to many people, they weren’t free. The thing I like about public libraries is that everyone can use them. You don’t even necessarily have to be a resident to use the facilities, so you see all kinds of people that you don’t run into in everyday life. Whether you are homeless or living on a country estate, you have the same access as everyone else. When you go in to the library, you see people from different neighborhoods, different jobs, different everything from people you usually see. Who are all in this building together just because they want to find out about stuff.
A weekly trip to the library was part of my upbringing. Library day was the best day of the week. When I write about books I read as a child, I often still picture the copy of the book I got from the library, and in many cases I can still recall where the book was shelved. When I was very young, we didn’t have a branch library, so we went to the central library, which was about a 20 minute drive away. A tiny branch library opened when I was in elementary school…I loved that we drove past it almost every day…and a larger branch opened around the time I first moved back to my hometown in 1999: apparently the word got out that I was back and that circulation numbers would be affected accordingly!
I could even describe my mother’s local library in the faraway land of Massachusetts even though I had never seen it. She told me how there was a little round bookcase in the corner with one shelf of books for each grade…basically what I checked each week was her point. Even though my mom was the youngest of five children, her mother found the time to choose books from the adult section for my mom when she was fairly young.
I have recently moved back to my hometown for the second time as an adult. They haven’t enlarged our branch library yet (haha), but I am really enjoying once again having full access to any library after twelve years of living overseas. Seriously, if you want to read, the library, not the bookstore, should be your first stop. First, of course, you have prepaid for the library if you have paid your taxes, so it’s silly not to use it. Using the library also means that your locality will keep its library as funding is based on the facilities that are used.
I have also come to the conclusion that the library does a better job of marketing to their clientele than bookstore chains: maybe that’s why the chain bookstores are struggling. More and more, every bookstore seems the same, or the differences are so minor that I don’t bother going in the chains when I am away from home, and I rarely go to the one closest to my home. There was a time that I rarely visited my local shopping district without popping in to the bookstore, but nowadays I feel like I just see a lot of copies of relatively few books rather than an interesting range of titles. Um, and the space that is actually devoted to books seems to keep getting smaller….
So I decided to start this series with a visit to my local library, the Major Hillard Branch of the Chesapeake Public Library, aka The Deep Creek Library.
Of course, when I come in I have to say “hi” to Ms. Rhonda, who I went to high school with. We have been friendly since our daughters were in first grade together (they are now 25). I take a quick scan to the left to see if any interesting “new arrivals” jump out at me, but today I am here on a mission so I don’t actually break my pace. Today I’m looking for poetry books. Of course, I could do a quick search online from home for any particular book or poet I’m interested in, but today I want to see what jumps out at me from the shelves.
For that reason, I also slide past the front section where the “holds” are stored. I know I have a few books I requested there, but there’s no reason to lug them around the library; I can collect them on my way out.
Then I have to make my way past the distraction of the magazine rack, which has been moved to the edge of the fiction section. The cool thing about the library magazine rack is that you can browse them as much as you want…and even sit down and read them…without having to buy them. But I’m supposed to be on a mission, and anyway I know that I can also access library magazines free and electronically through the library web page when I’m busy procrastinating on something at home.
I have a little difficulty finding my way around the fiction section, which seems to go on and on, to find poetry, which FYI is shelved with the nonfiction (Yes, I have issues with the library classification system, but it’s not their fault). The placement of the sections first struck me as a little bit confusing because I expected the nonfiction to be more separated (take a look in the children’s room, and you’ll see what I mean), but as I write this I realize that the staff are actually being pretty strategic because people are more liable to wander from one section to another, and perhaps find something new. Take that John Dewey!*
But again…mission…mission. What are the numbers for poetry again?
When I find the poetry section, I am a little bit let down, but actually what I see there is actually a pretty prescient collection for this particular branch. My community is full of smart but practical people. In the poetry section, I find a Garrison Keillor collection, which I like and I can imagine is of general interest, along with some other collections of poetry that high school and college students might need.
When I look around the shelves a bit more, my interest is sparked by several other titles. Ooh, look at all the books about boating and shipping! Of course, most of the boroughs in Chesapeake are named for bodies of water, including this one. That makes sense. Oooh, woman pirates? That happened?
Then I turn and look behind me…what do I see? A shelf that runs the gamut from horse care to fishing to hunting. Yup, they got that right too. One bay of my garage is devoted to fishing equipment, including two fishing kayaks. And the bit of space leftover from the fishing gear is devoted to overflow horse gear from the barn.
My local branch library is about the same size as the local chain bookstore, and also a lot closer to my house. The book selection is much more interesting: even though I don’t really fit the typical local demographic that well, there’s plenty that grabs my attention. Other books I’m interested in are available through the very efficient interlibrary loan system and are usually delivered within a day or two of my online request if the books are checked in. When requesting books, I always seeing which branch the books I want are housed in because of what it tells me about each borough of the city.
The only thing they seem to be missing is the overpriced coffee, but I’m not too worried about that because I pass both a 7-11 (which has good, not overpriced, coffee) and The BBQ Shack (which is cheap, awesome, and also decorated with Porky Pig kitsch) to get there…and the library has even thoughtfully provided us with tables and chairs in the lobby so we can enjoy their free wifi (and air conditioning…this is the South, ya’ll) with our $.99 coffee. Oh Thank Heaven!
If you want more, try this article about the past and future of the library.