My first car accident occurred in the parking lot of a library. I had barely earned my driver’s license a few hours earlier. I hopped in my Mazda GLC that evening for a joyride—straight to the public library. So excited to visit the stacks inside, I hurriedly parked, misjudging the space and clipped the fender of the neighboring car. I got a tongue lashing from the owner, naturally—though the damage was insignificant.
But what stays with me more than that humiliation on what should have been a day of driving triumph is that my first choice destination when exercising my new-born 16 year old freedom, was to drive to a library. Libraries were a haven and a place of intellectual adventure in my childhood.
I remember the delicious sense of “shopping” that libraries provided. My mother took us weekly to pick books—and we were allowed to check out as many as we liked! I would examine the spines for provocative words like: “Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack” and colorful book covers like Garth Williams’ illustrations for the Little House books.
In the 1970s, we still used card catalogues made of paper. It was a point of pride with me that I could navigate that system at a young age (by 10) and locate a book by its digits with decimal points. Perhaps that introduction to the secret society of proficient library users contributed to my love of research-based writing. The first time a librarian showed me how to use microfiche (slides that keep copies of newspapers, academic journals, and books from decades gone by), I felt the thrill of membership to a society of scholars.
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Fast forward a few decades and it’s no wonder that I gathered my five small children, bundled them in boots and coats against the cold Ohio winters, and invaded our local library every single week. Not content to check out one or two titles per child, we brought two laundry baskets with us to cart our book hauls home. Yes, there was the time when a stack of 20 CDs went missing in our rambling house to the tune of a fine over $100.00 (one hundred dollars I didn’t have). Still, we rejoiced in spring when the CDs reappeared like tulip bulbs, having been hidden under a sectional and blanket. We were refunded our fine and the librarians, forgiving as always, reassured us that they were glad we were back.
My two oldest kids got to participate in a poetry club for junior high kids. Each week, on Wednesday nights, the library turned their meeting room into a low-lights, coffee shop atmosphere with candles and colored table cloths. A microphone stood on a platform and kids between the ages of 11 and 15 took turns reciting original poetry (a poetry slam!). After the first meeting, my kids were highly motivated to write their own poetry. Until that night, their themes had consisted of skateboarding and ballet. This time, their poetry took a dark turn. One wrote from the viewpoint of a child in a wheelchair and the other discussed the pain of losing someone to suicide. I was startled! They each told me in their own way, “I didn’t know poetry could be about hard real life things!”
And that’s just it. Libraries are this incredible gift to our communities—a place where children discover more of the world as it is, aided by research tools, friendly staff, and a wide selection of books there for the borrowing. Libraries offer read aloud storybook times for toddlers, sometimes poetry slams for teens, and book club meet ups for adults. In our increasingly digital world, it’s so nice to know that down the street, there’s a collection of people dedicated to creating a space for research and reading, for community and collaboration.
As a home educator for seventeen years, I can’t think of a place that offered us more. The library stood as a weekly highlight—a day in the week where my children felt the thrill of independent learning. They’d peruse the stacks, sample a book in their hands, lean back in a beanbag chair to start the next book in a series, and check out a pile of them, confident that they had made good intellectually stimulating decisions for themselves. Three cheers for the library! (Just be careful when you park.)
Featured image: @Lesia.Valentain via Twenty20