Friday, July 16, 2010

Rediscovering the library.

I was so disappointed when we moved to southern Virginia seven years ago and I got a good look at the library systems here, first the county system where we first lived, and then the city system where we live now.

I moved here from Columbus, Ohio, a city and a state which both devoted a lot of attention and money toward their libraries. (Granted, this was in the prosperous 1990's--things may be different now in Ohio.) I worked for a while at one of the branch libraries in the Columbus system, a brand-new building with a vast "new books" section, gorgeous wooden bookshelves, high spacious ceilings, a fireplace and cozy seating area--and of course, access to all the books in all the other Columbus branches--millions of books just a day or two away, once requested. And since I worked there, picking up my requested books was simply part of my routine.

We had two libraries close by our home--one was also part of the Columbus system, and was extensively renovated while we lived there, and the other closest library was part of a village system, but a wealthy village with lots of money to throw at its library. That particular library has been renovated twice in the past fifteen years--it's basically a mall with books at this point.

It upset me probably more than it should have, moving to a place where libraries seem more like an afterthought than a prominent community feature. I've mentioned my current library before--a small, squat, dark place whose most interesting feature is that it's named after astronaut Gus Grissom.

Not that I'm opposed to small libraries, necessarily...while I was in college in Marietta, Ohio, I was a regular user of the Washington County public library on Fifth Street. It was a small, old building that smelled like dusty paper. I'd walk there from campus to get my required dose of murder mysteries and other non-college related reading material. Because it was old, it had that hushed, sacred, echoing quality that modern libraries can't quite achieve.

We also had a small old library in Columbiana, Ohio, which was my beloved childhood library, tucked behind the high school on a bumpy brick-paved street.
The steps down to the children's section in the basement were blood-red linoleum, narrow, slippery, steep, dark. (Obviously pre-Americans with Disabilities Act.) Every two weeks I would drag a bulging bookbag up the steps and out to the car. My mom would make me write a list of all my books the minute I got home, to try to avoid the ordeal of lost books and fines, which could run into some serious money with a kid who brought home as many books as I did. (That library was torn down years ago, and there's a nice, safe [boring] one-story modern library in a different neighborhood now.)

But the Grissom library in Newport News is small and charmless. It was built out of cement in that decade of architectural shame known as the 1970s. The new books section is sad and sparse. The building doesn't smell of old paper but of damp plastic carpet. And the library workers can be on the surly side. I go there once a year or so, and then I go home, missing Ohio.

But there must be some sort of belated homing instinct deep in my brain, like with swallows or pigeons, because about a month ago, I felt this deep desire to go to the library. For the past three years, I've been using Paperback Swap to fill my book needs (along with occasional trips to Borders) and although I love Paperback Swap passionately, there were books that I just wasn't able to find there, or that were so heavily wishlisted that it would be three more years before I'd work my way to the top of the list for them.

So I printed off a list of books I was looking for and spent some time clicking at the library card catalog computer and lo and behold--I found a lot of them. Not all by any means, but a lot. I brought home a stack, and went back a few days later to pick up another stack that I'd requested from the two or three other libraries in the city system.

I read through most of those (this all coincided with a 100-degree heat wave--good indoor reading weather) and went back two weeks later and brought home (and requested) two more big stacks. This time I also ventured into inter-library loan, which is not a service I've made much use of before, since I'm a person who tends to want books NOW.

I found that the library shelves and seating areas have been rearranged a bit, for a more open feel, which has greatly reduced the claustrophobic feeling. And I've found that early evening visits are the best--there are fewer people and more of a quiet bustle during that time, which is very soothing.

So far this has been the great satisfaction of my summer--bringing home big stacks of library books. The feeling reminds me so much of childhood summers, and that adds an extra layer of pleasure to it. All I would need to do is turn off the air conditioning and plop down on a blanket in front of a box fan with my newest read, and it would be like time traveling! (But I'm not turning off the a/c, not even to time travel!)