“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” – Jorge Luis Borges
The concept of a public library is relatively modern. The first library as we know it in America was the result of an accident. The town of Peterborough, New Hampshire had intended to start a college, initiated taxes to do so, but the effort had failed, and the town’s citizens decided to allocate the money to the purchase of books, which resulted in a town library. Not until 1854, with the premier of the Boston Public Library, did Americans – or at least, Bostonians – have a library intentionally dedicated to furthering education, providing popular and scholarly books, free of charge. Prior to the BPL, a library was actually a combination of three things: a society library in which members paid a handsome annual subscription to belong to a society, for which we can thank Benjamin Franklin; a circulating library, which was, more or less, like a video store in which a person rents out a book for a period of time; and last but not least, a school district library, which, thanks to Horace Mann, also of Massachusetts at the time, was designed to provide reading adults and children with books. Taxes funded this last variant, the school district library. Church parishes and universities would also have private collections, but those libraries had obvious requirements for membership and privileges. In the 1880s, 1890s, and early years of the twentieth century, public libraries sprouted up across America thanks to taxes, but access was a major issue since books were limited to scholars, hours were limited to when most people worked, and there were even age restrictions on using a library. Andrew Carnegie single-handedly demolished all of that when he founded over 3,000 libraries around the world, more than half of them in the United States. Yes, Carnegie the industrialist founded the modern U.S. Public Library System; and a sweet irony to it all is that his insistence that everyone should be allowed to use a library got him denounced as a Communist. The Library Services Act in 1956 inaugurated federal funding for libraries.
On Saturday mornings as a child I would venture down to the town public library with my library card, which, I still remember, was made of hard white plastic with my name and address in black on top, the town library’s name and address in blue on the bottom. When I borrowed a book, the librarian would insert my card into this rather huge black contraption, which I swear made me think of the mysterious black boxes retrieved from plane crashes, except this one held the reading habits of my entire town. In went the card and the librarian would do something magical on her side of the desk and this gargantuan machine would spit out a postage stamp-sized sticker that she would then adhere to the pocket sleeve in the back of the book. That sticker was my due date in mimeograph blue. The more books I borrowed the more sounds that black box would make. Ca-chunk. Ca-chunk.
My friends dreaded receiving the thin envelope, a late notice from the library. It’s rather silly now to recall the fear since none of us had any way of getting to the library on our own. Our parents drove us, and our parents paid the paltry fines; but the terror was the same as going to the principal’s office, because an overdue book was a mark of irresponsibility, personal failure; the egregious act of selfishness in depriving someone else in town of a book. Somebody had the urgent need to read about the dinosaurs I kept in my room for a few days or someone wanted to spend a few hours wrapped up in a mystery with Agatha Christie.
Borrowing a book was often like going to confession. The librarian knew what you read. Her eyes glanced down at the title, her eyes met yours, and you swallowed hard, as she went to the back page in approval after she took your card and held you in Purgatory. She knew everything that you read. She knew what journeys your mind was taking, or where the hormonal rages simmered. It could be Salinger one week and Tolkien the next. Stephen King called one week and the week after was nostalgia with Fenimore Cooper or Dumas’s musketeers. Or perhaps there is ache for the introspective and placid calm of C.S. Lewis, the sure hand of lucid intelligence in Austen, or the venturing out into the darker realm of Bronte’s moors. The librarian knew the polygraph of your developing soul and intellect.
I recall once searching for a book. Yes, this was in the archaic days of the Dewey Decimal System, which required a lender to pull open wooden drawers and search for a book alphabetically either by title or author. There were no computers. Gasp. I searched for a book and saw that the card said “Adult Fiction.” I was shocked because I had thought this meant I could not borrow the book. I walked over to the librarian, who was not grandmotherly in any way. In fact, she was fresh out of college with her library science degree, so I found out later. I handed her the piece of paper with my writing. She read the title. Her eyes lifted up. She had that curious look. I felt examined, like John Proctor,and she had reversed gender and become Roger Chillingworth. She told me to wait. Unbeknownst to me she went over to one of my parents and had asked whether it was okay for me to borrow from the adult section. She returned with the book and her wry smile. She said that my card had unrestricted access and borrowing privileges. I felt I had sinned and been liberated simultaneously. The book? Judith Rosssner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar.
As I got older and more adventuresome I saw librarians not as guardians of what excluded me, but as Virgilian guides through the vast darkness and my own ignorance. I’d asked them what they would recommend. All those years of knowing and observing my literary tastes informed them what I was capable of and where I could stretch myself. I had these incredible women – yes, librarians of my youth were all women – suggesting books. I would learn how Les Misérables influenced Before the Storm and War and Peace, much like Madame Bovary had inspired Anna Karenina and the novels of Clarín and de Queirós. A modest town building with its captivating and frightening silence, its row after row of books, from floor to ceiling, nurtured my curiosity and obeyed my voracious appetite. A plastic card invested me with an awesome power to disappear into stories that other men and women throughout history, from my culture and others, had created in my language or in others that I would enjoy though translation. I grew to appreciate the gift of sight and literacy.
For me the library was magical and remains a place of escape, of infinite possibilities, not unlike Borges’s short story, the “Library of Babel,” full of inter-textual references, or Eco’s medieval library in The Name of the Rose, and every book was a friend with a whispering narrative, a unique voice, a time and place that required no physical travel, only the plea to be borrowed, taken home, and appreciated, and maybe that tiniest of hopes from the author that I would return another day and rekindle the bond and reignite the wonder of the word.
I have read others so that I may live today, prepared myself for those whom I have yet to read tomorrow and in so reading through the course of my unknown number of mortal days understand what it is to be human.