Monday, April 16, 2007

Celebrate Your Local Library!

I want to forget the tortoises for the moment (or perhaps forever) and remind you all that it is National Library Week this week.

So if you're in the neighborhood of a library (and most of us are at some time or other), why not stop in and say thanks to your local librarian.

As a writer, libraries mean a lot to me. But even before I was a writer, I was a reader. And I became a reader because of our local library.

Our library sat in a squat faded pinkish-orange stuccoed building on Manhattan Avenue in Manhattan Beach. It was a mere block from the beach. I could stand on the corner and stare down the hill and see as far as the earth's curvature would let me.

But going inside the library, I could see forever.

I could travel the world and space and time. There were no boundaries -- only the promise of more wonderful worlds to come -- every time I opened a book.

The children's section, at one end of the building, had low shelves and a threadbare rug and several small stools to sit on if the rug got too hard -- or damp. I mostly remember the damp. I'm not sure the library had heat. I know it didn't have -- didn't need -- air conditioning. I doubt the heat because I remember sitting there for ages wrapped in my coat reading and reading and reading.

Outside the fog swirled around (I don't remember many sunny days because most of the time that close to the beach the "early morning fog" (now called "the marine layer") met the "late night fog" (also called "the marine layer) about 2 in the afternoon most of the year.

So everything in the library was slightly damp, and everything smelled a bit briny. It's a scent most people don't associate with libraries. But to this day I do. And I get nostalgic for books as well as the beach when I smell the sea.

The day I could finally print my name small enough to fit on the tiny space available on the index card inside the book meant that I could get my own library card. And it was a red letter day, believe me. I practiced and practiced. And even after I got it, I used to worry that my handwriting would get bigger and they would somehow take away my card. I also thought that I could have had it sooner if I'd had a very very short name. I envied kids named Ann Day and Jim Hsu.

After I got it I checked out the maximum six books every time I went. I was allowed to keep them two weeks. Of course I read them all that evening and wanted to go back the next day. My mother, who loved a good movie far more than a book, was less than thrilled. But she took me -- not every day, but far more often than I'm sure she enjoyed. I owe her a lot for that.

I owe the authors I read, too. We didn't have a large library, so I read every book at least once. And I always forgot everything that happened in it as soon as I read it. What I remembered was whether I liked it or not.

If I liked it, I remembered what color it was and where it was shelved, so I could check it out again soon and reread it and find the same sense of joy all over again.

When I was in late elementary school, they built a new library several blocks back from the ocean. They had heat in this building. And tables. And more shelves. And more books. It was amazing. I was also old enough to ride my bike there, which I did every day during the summer. I read every book there, too. I signed up for the summer reading program, but after two weeks they tossed me out because I read too many books. I didn't care. It wasn't the program I was there for -- it was the story.

It's always been about the story. Libraries are the home of promise, of potential, of hope. They also harbor their share of angst and misery and despair. But as a reader, you can pick and choose. You can find books of your heart (whatever they may be) there.

In the March 2007 Women's Day magazine there was an article about how the library changed my life. I read it avidly and encourage you to click on the link and check it out, too. These women's experiences with libraries were even more profound than mine. But I could identify with the joy and the world of possibilities that came out of all of them.

If you have your own "how the library changed my life" or "enriched my life" story, and you wouldn't mind sharing it, please put it in the comments section here. I'd love to read it. I'm sure others would, too.


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