Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Library with a Capital L: A Concept

The smell of stale paper and new books, combined with the titillating knowledge that inside each book was a secret life—an adventure waiting to happen—made The Library a magical place for me as a small girl. It was where in the summer I could go to collect exciting prizes such as bookmarks and stickers and canvas bags for all the books I read, and where in the winter I would go each week and pick out as many interesting and entertaining books as Mom would allow and spend the wintry inside-week learning about exotic places and time periods and enjoying the escapism and intrigue of the mysteries of The Boxcar Children and The Bobbsey Twins and The Hardy Boys. I’m thankful that Mom took my siblings and me to The Library like clockwork, once a week—rain or shine.
Later The Library was a place that made me feel exceedingly collegiate, even exceedingly brilliant when I got too carried away in my thinking. Going to the reference section and printing out (at first on the dot matrix printer paper), information only valuable to me—the eccentric who chose to do her papers on obscure topics when possible— made me feel important. Much of the goal of going to the library during the first part of college was to lock myself away from the chaos of dorm life and force myself to focus. Somehow it usually worked. Since I went to a college with an embarrassingly small library, I often went to a nearby university library where I felt intelligent and important just by walking up and down surrounded by so many, many books and bespectacled scholars partitioned off in soundproof rooms. I came away hoping I had absorbed some universal truths and worldly wisdom just by exposing myself to the books.
When I made my cross-country move, The Library became the place I went for bus and metro-riding reading material. Since I could suddenly read for pleasure and not for class, and had time on public transportation every day, I read like a crazy-person, sometimes missing my metro or bus stops because I was buried in my books.
As a teacher, my relationship with The Library changed a bit. For one thing there was always the pronunciation struggle. At the end of each of the years I taught seventh grade I had a floor-to-ceiling exposed beam covered with papers on which students had correctly spelled LIBRARY after pronouncing it LYE-BERRY. Ridiculous. Also,it can be challenging to keep track of 24 students in a library. But I always tried to present it (even to my disillusioned 12th graders who oddly enough already knew everything) as an inspiring place to be, and one we were privileged to visit.
Though I was technically getting paid for it, parading unwilling high school students down the halls and into the library where I cracked the whip of graduation above them was not as great as when I worked writing curriculum courses. I GOT PAID to go to The Library, which gave me all kinds of chills. I remember going to collect information on various authors for the British Literature course I helped write and pinching myself, knowing that I was on the clock taking this kind of trip. Always though, entering The Library has been like walking into a quiet sanctuary of peacefulness.
Enter Twin Boys. The Library has changed. When the boys were younger it was pleasant enough, pushing them down the street and around the corner and into the air conditioned silence of The Library made me feel responsible as a parent. I would check out all the board books that would fit into my canvas grocery bag and hang it on the back of the stroller for the trip home. The boys were fairly contained most of the time just looking around at that point, though I lived in fear that a cry, possibly even a wail, might escape them and that the librarians would scowl at me. I even had a librarian basically kick me out of storytime for not being able to contain the two boys (13 months at the time) on my lap at once, and not allowing me to use my stroller as a means to contain them. (The first and last time we ever went to storytime at The Library. The bookstore nearby is much more friendly. It seems the readers there have actually been around children and know what to expect from them—namely that one year olds don’t sit in perfect semi-circles quietly.)
Eventually the boys started wanting out of the stroller on our visits. I could only put one of them out at once, which I learned after I took them both out and they ran in opposite directions, tripping on the edges of their sandals, falling face-first onto the thin carpet, and sobbing—one at each end of the children’s section. One of the most memorable times was not long ago when Brian and I both took them to The Library later at night, to get some new books and sign language videos (they’re obsessed with sign language). We each just walked in with a boy at our hands and no stroller. Immediately they started squealing, squirming out of our grips, and running around, pointing at the lights, the “new stories!” “Signing Time!”and giggling at eluding our clutches. We got some of the “How cute, what a handful, I know what you’re going through” looks as well as the “What the devil are you doing in The Library, go home and take your seed with you” looks.

Now my library visits feel more like a military drill. I take them in the stroller, push them in as fast as I can without exceeding some imaginary speed limit set forth in the mind of the stuck-up children’s librarian, hold my breath as I pass her and the boys lean out of the stroller saying “walk, walk!” or “down, down!”, get to the place I want to go, quietly distract the boys by asking about the books they recognize while I search madly for more books and signing videos. When I’m done I give them each one book or video to hold and sprint-push the stroller back to a self-checkout station where I madly scan the copies of the books, pulling a couple from eager fingers, “Book, MY BOOK!” and return them to the flailing arms and arching backs threatening to tip over the stroller. Usually by that time my headband or hair tie is falling out and my hair is in my eyes and I’ve worked up some ridiculous sweat since I didn’t want to take the time to take my coat off. It seems that everyone in The Library is glaring at me and rolling their eyes, though I’m sure it’s only a few. As soon as the boys are placated with their reading or viewing material, I whisk them out the door and take in a deep breath. I have survived The Library Drill and I somehow still love books.
I started tutoring in The Library and occasionally I am even able to slip away to The Library by myself. I am relieved to know that when I walk in alone it has the same appeal that it always has had. It is a sanctuary. It is the medley of words and stories and possibilities that I love. I get no stares. I do not cringe. I do not sweat. I sip my covered drink and calmly saunter down the narrow aisles of the Classics section that do not accommodate the double stroller. It is My Library.

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