Libraries are home to so many lives, real and imagined, and those made real through imagination. There aren't many places in our society that can claim to hold so many spirits aloft, bouyed by words and the scent of acid-nibbled papers, and the promise of a few minutes (or hours) of escape. A case can be made for the theatre, but you have to pay an admission there. The library is free to everyone.
When we moved from New Jersey to Northeastern Pennsylvania in 1975, my mother was disheartened by the offerings sprinkled along the strip-mined landscape. There were bars, "adult shoppes,"(adding the extra "pe" made the porn seem classier?) and more bars, but where was the library? She was relieved to find it on the main street of the town nearest to the woods where our house was being built. It was over a bar, if my child's mind remembers correctly, but it was there.
Alice was the name of the librarian, and she became a family friend. She was a large woman with twinkling eyes and a chuckly laugh. Summer reading clubs were big in the 1970's and my sister and I racked up shiny stars on the charts as we bookwormed our way through Blume and Drew, Wilder and Baum (I know I sneaked a few lower level Seusses into my list to keep up with my sister). If I were able to enter that second story library today, I could walk you right to the shelves where the Steven King books were in the adult fiction, and the place where that mystery whose title eludes me now sat among the young adult books, or the spot under the eaves where Alice stored encyclopedias and other book sets that were donated. I helped her to organize that space one summer. It was dusty and hot, but I really felt like I was doing some good, and the fact that she let me made me feel more like an adult. There were Christmas parties, Girl Scout puppet shows, and time after school as Mom chatted with Alice. As I grew up in my hometown library, I lounged in the corner and flipped through the Seventeen magazines, or got lost in a girl's sixteen different personalities in the well-worn copy of Sybil.
Today my local library is just around the corner and up the street. It's an easy walk, and a pleasant one. In front of the building is a sculpture of a poem by Emily Dickinson that is incised into a piece of metal so the reader can see through every word to what is behind it. What is behind it? The Lancaster Public Library. The first words of the poem are an invitation: I dwell in Possibility --
I tend to hang out in the basement of this library. The lack of light and noise makes for a cave-like feel and it helps me to focus. It's a place where anything is possible, yes, but here is where I will make one thing happen. It's a good place to write and read, because it is far from the bank of computers that are filled with internet browsers, and the scent of the books in the basement is just right. At any given time during my reading and research I can be sitting next to a teenage girl seeking information on platelets for a report, or a homeless man finding some rest at the table. The librarians try their best to hush cellphone use, but I've heard plenty of one-sided conversations. The upstairs rooms are for children and teens, and there are some multi-purpose rooms I haven't been in yet but hope to someday visit through a program. The Juliana bookstore has plenty of gently used books for sale, the proceeds of which support the library.
My husband and I were married in one of my favorite libraries - the Osterhout Free Library on Franklin Street in Wilkes-Barre. Built in 1849, it was once the First Presbyterian Church. Melvil Dewey, creator of the Dewey decimal system, was asked to act as an
advisor to the library board. He suggested that the board buy the First Presbyterian
Church, and use it for ten years
until permanent arrangements could be made. This was in 1887. It is still a library today, and a magnificent one. I immediately fell in love with the glass floors of the second floor space that overlooks the main room, and the extensive poetry collection, and the reading room with its common lights and orderly newspaper rack. I wrote a family cookbook here, and attended poetry readings. I arranged for a poet to come in and give a workshop and reading through the ALA, I ran a few workshops and writing circles there myself. I spent hours pouring over the microfiche searching for a baseball team from the early part of the 20th century that a hospice patient played in when he was a kid. I read a newspaper article about a woman who set herself on fire in a cemetery, and wrote a horrible formal poem about it. There are so many spirits there in six point type on microfiche film, letterpressed into thick paper in the city directories, or forever dancing at the holiday feast, asking to be read.
We were married in this library because I wanted all those witnesses - the woman who set herself on fire, the Line who fell in love with a Dot, Walter Mitty, the Velveteen Rabbit. There are times when I'm in a library and I think that there will never be the same configuration of people again - the real ones checking out their books, and the fictional ones on shelves or resting behind the eyelids of the dreamer. I wonder if the books that sit next to each other day by day, week by week, year to year, ever tire of what each one has to say. Sometimes I slip one in the wrong slot just so it will have a new neighbor to talk to, and then change the configuration of the spirits in the place. It's not necessary, and it probably irritates the librarians to no end, but it adds to my sense of wonderment about libraries and words, and the flickers of lives we brush up against in our lifetime. Some barely glow at the hem of our skirts and cuffs of our shirts, while others blaze and consume us.