On a hot, muggy Monday afternoon in late July, my husband and I found ourselves sitting in a rented Hyundai Sonata, alongside the newly rebuilt Long Island City, Queens, waterfront overlooking Manhattan’s East River. Our 2-year-old son’s gentle snores from the backseat punctuated the blasting AC. We had parked illegally, partly for the view, but mostly so we could extend the nap our boy desperately needed before our last stop on a whirlwind three-day New York City catch-up-with-friends-while-stuffing-our-faces-with-delicious-food tour. This side trip was part of a larger two-week trip to Eastern Pennsylvania to introduce our son to family, friends, and green landscapes. It was also a covert litmus test for my husband and me to see if we wanted to move back (the answer: no!). So we were already in an emotional place when I looked up and noticed a bookmobile taking in our same view. Immediately my body flushed with warmth, and not because of the pressing heat and heavy humidity outside.
“Look!” I exclaimed, grinning, waves of nostalgia washing over me. “A bookmobile! I remember the bookmobile!”
(Queens Library Bookmobile, @QueensLibrary)
The bookmobile! My first library card! That I could use to take out books! That I picked out ALL BY MYSELF!
My first library card had a raised metal piece in the bottom right corner with my name and library number on it. The rest of the card was thick, off-white; its edges would fray and soften over years of use. The first place I remember using it was on the Warminster Township Library bookmobile. I can remember the butterflies in the pit of my stomach as I climbed its tall stairs. In my adult mind, the bookmobile was like a lounge: dimly lit, wrapped in the warm hues of yellow, red and orange, its engine purring promises of thrilling exploration and illuminating revelation. That it fell upon me, and only me, to choose my own literary adventures made the bookmobile a truly magical vehicle of discovery.
While my mother was the first person to take me aboard a bookmobile (the Hatboro-Horsham Library bookmobile, which was red and parked at the Village Mall), she claims it was my first grade teacher, Mrs. Me, who ignited my love of books. In time, I would more than love books–I would come to value them, and the bookmobiles and libraries that granted me access to them. To value something is to understand its importance, its usefulness. It is impossible for me to talk about how much I value books, the bookmobile and the library without talking about how much I value reading itself.
Reading was, and continues to be, critical to my constitution, to every aspect of my being, to my very humanness. Reading saved me. It rescued me from a turbulent childhood. It expanded my worldview and broadened my perspective. It protected me. Reading allowed me the space to escape and dream. It sharpened and deepened my imagination and pushed boundaries that I didn’t even know existed. Reading delivered writing to me. For that I will be forever humbled and grateful. It turns out that reading is an act and a process that keeps giving: it teaches me how to write best, which is how I, in turn, teach my craft. But that is another story for another time. The point is without reading, writing, and books–and the bookmobile and the library–I would not be who I am today.
I recently read an article in the Washington Post, titled “Parenting as a Gen Xer” (because I am a parent now and I read these sort of things). In it the author, Allison Slater Tate (@AllisonState), claims in that our generation, the Gen Xers, “had the last of the truly low-tech childhoods, and now we are among the first of the truly high-tech parents.” In much the same way, my generation is also the last one to have experienced a low-tech library. We witnessed libraries’ transformation from no- and low-tech solitary spaces to high-tech social spaces. For me the change feels dramatic.
My early library memories are ones of hushed spaces done up in muted low-pile carpet, mahogany, and Tiffany green. Rows and rows of shelves were lined with colorful laminated spines. To search was to move and to touch. The library was a place of reverence, studiousness, privacy, a place to wander, get lost, and then found. The libraries of my youth had study carrels and that laborious “search engine” known as the card catalog. The card catalog! The last time I saw one of those was in my brother-in-law’s garage and it was full of tools. Cutting-edge library technology in those days: microfilm and microfiche (micro-whaa, I hear today’s kids sputtering). The library of my youth smelled like books.
As I grew older, technology started to creep into the libraries I used. The computer supplemented (and eventually replaced) the card catalog. Printers replaced copy machines. Individual carrels gave way to long tables. Rooms could be reserved for video viewings and study groups. My college library was the first place I used a computer to search for books, though the process was grounded in the “old school”–we still had to scribble the call number on a scrap of paper and get off our fannies to find it. (College was also the first place I used email. Toward the end of high school my electric typewriter was usurped by a cumbersome gigantic home computer that took up a third of our kitchen, only to be used for word processing and endless rounds of Taipei).
My graduate school library experience was firmly anchored in technology. When I needed to conduct research, I sat in the center of the library’s main reading room, at a computer (a Mac no less) and burned through my free printing allotment with scholarly article after scholarly article. My bibliographies consisted of hyperlinks. Get up and move? Sooo last decade. We could even talk and bring water–AND DRINK IT–in the library. That library had a pillow nook nestled in the landing between floors for those so inclined to cozy up and actually read a book in the library. I saw students snoozing there, but seldom reading.
(Sarah Lawrence College library https://www.facebook.com/slclibrary)
When I started teaching composition to college freshman, we signed up our class for workshops in the library. Most of my students were the first in their families to go to college. They had never been in their college library before and certainly had no idea how to begin to access the treasure trove of information available to them. Of course they knew how to Google. They could Google in their sleep. They probably did Google in their sleep. They had to learn how to use a library, how to ask questions and conduct research effectively and efficiently. The library taught them the depth and richness beyond Google (and when Google Scholar came along, within Google). Those library workshops even taught us (I learned something new at every time) how to Google smarter. My students also learned they could find a quiet place to do homework and study (a luxury for those students whose families and friends did not value higher education and/or understand the need for space and time), and they learned they could even borrow the textbooks they used in class for a few hours. Learning how to use the library transformed my students’ experience of it. It also transformed each and every one of them, whether they realized it or not. The library, and all its resources, helped them learn how to learn. The students who realized the value of the library glowed. It ignited something in them. Like magic. Some of them thanked me for the introduction.
(John Jay College library @JohnJayLibrary)
My son’s first library experience was at the Pleasant Hill Library’s storytime, featuring the amazing storyteller and musician (and Community Library Manager), Patrick Remer. I watched Patrick’s performance draw my son away from me for the first time in a public setting and into a sea of singing laughing children. My son was rapt and I was hooked. The more we visit the library, the more my son explores: the wooden car, the castle, the magnet wall’s shapes and gears, the toddler book bins. He likes to weave through the children’s stacks and run his fingers along the cellophaned spines. He picks out a pile of books (judging the book by its cover, of course) and we choose a few to take home to read and reread. Last year, we saw a dog show–with live, furry, panting doggies–at the library! As he gets older we will take advantage of the other programs and events at Pleasant Hill Library–like Creative Craft and Maker Monday–that will ignite sparks in his heart and mind. In his library, my son will inquire, invent, innovate. He will not quietly consume the way I did when I was younger. In his library, he will make and create alongside his peers. He will learn how to learn and his library experience will be physical, but in a way completely different from mine.
(Storytime with Patrick @PleasantHillLib)
How we feel about the library is as individual as our experience of it. As libraries evolve how individuals and communities value them will also evolve. Certainly for me wandering and exploring gave way to pointed researching and task mastering. And now as I learn about my son’s library, that studious workspace wanes as a playful space, brimming and buzzing with excitement and energy, blooms. Whatever context couches our library experience, it is reasonable to say that a library is–and will continue to be so long as it rides the ebb and flow of our changing world–useful and important.
Libraries have always been, as keepers, arbiters and organizers, the gateway to our information. If information is power then libraries are empowering. But there’s so much more to a library than its access to information. Access is, nowadays, just as valuable as the information.
Libraries have always had librarians, those friendly approachable folks who act as teachers, facilitators, coordinators, tour guides, and magicians. Librarians are the gatekeepers who have mastered the search in research. It is their human touch that softens today’s cutting edge technology.
Libraries have always been transformative. Beyond the door of the library or the bookmobile, magic awaits. Our future dreamers, innovators, and makers can make discoveries–about themselves, about their world–that have the potential to change minds and hearts, and touch individual lives and communities.
I cannot imagine what it will be like for those kids climbing aboard that bookmobile in Long Island City, Queens or for my son when he gets his first library card. Will they feel butterflies in their bellies? Will they get dizzy with the autonomy of choosing their own literary or digital adventure? What will they learn? How will it change them? How will it save them? And how will that, in turn, change–and maybe even save–all of us?
Originally published September 1, 2015