The first time I stepped foot in a public library, I was an awkward 11-year-old, the new girl in Butler, Pennsylvania, a steel mill town north of Pittsburgh. Since my family had already moved 12 times by then, I was used to panicking over where to sit at lunch and navigating my way through unfamiliar hallways. Being the tallest in the class with a fashion sense that could best be described as “Granny Clampett meets K-Mart,” I was not generally considered a threat to the established social pecking order at any new school. But, in Butler, I was lucky enough to snag a friend, Barb, right off the bat. Not only did she install me at her lunch table, but she dragged me to the library just down the street on our first sleep-over. "Huh?" I thought. "She wants to go to the library, when there’s a perfectly good candy store just around the corner?" Clearly, her priorities were askew.
For no good reason, I had decided that libraries were neck-and-neck with the evening news in the competition for world’s most boring activity. How anyone could sit still for an hour, just watching a talking face, was beyond me. But off to the library I sauntered, not being one to disagree with a new best friend. When we entered, I was immediately enticed by the sense of calm and order. The librarian at the counter looked up and smiled, not saying a word to break the pervading silence. The scent of wood and paper was oddly energizing. I stood, mesmerized, in front of the card catalog: a huge oak cabinet dotted with tiny drawers. The precision and organization of the entire place felt soothing, like the long-lost puzzle piece I’d been searching for. Having moved so frequently, often across states at the sudden whim of my single mom, I craved predictability, and this place was nothing if not predictable.
Barb and I found a carpeted corner and spent hours perusing magazines together, hunched against the wall. Over time, I took to stopping at the library most days on my way home from school. How refreshing to enter Melvin Dewey’s haven of perfect order after a day spent striving to win the approval of teachers and classmates. My family got a library card, and I expanded from magazines to discover the adventures that can lurk within the pages of a book. I got to know Anne of Green Gables, Doctor Dolittle and Nancy Drew, among others. This was my kind of travel: all from the safe confines of my living room couch. From then on, wherever I have lived, the library has been a part of my life. Even when I travel, I check out the local library for a better sense of the town and to get in on any interesting programs or speakers. Though libraries today are not like the silent havens of my youth, they are just as vital in their role of educating and informing.
As a freakishly order-loving individual, I studied accounting in college, but, after a time, I felt the pull of happy memories and switched to library work, spending 15 years at my local library in reference and children’s and adult programming, helping customers from countless countries to find resources, entertainment and instruction in everything from computer skills to knitting. During my tenure, our library went from archaic computers to up-to-date equipment, eBooks and periodicals, comprehensive research databases and much more, besides a steady infusion of good, old-fashioned print books.
Aside from keeping up with advances in the formatting of materials, libraries have adapted to the need for people to connect within communities, greatly expanding programs for all ages. Most members of my library book discussion group have been together for over 15 years. Where else can people of every age, race, religious persuasion and income bracket come together for meaningful discussion about the books that affect their lives? A North Carolina library I recently visited offered everything from fitness classes to advanced computer topics to Mah Jongg lessons to historical seminars to caregiver support groups to opera performances: all free of charge.
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So, while libraries have changed significantly over the 40 years since I joined the fold, their mission has remained about the same: to be a welcoming place, a sanctuary in a busy world where 11-year-olds, or folks of any age, can find a smile, learn a new skill, discover books, expand their boundaries and connect with others. Like blue jeans and cotton T-shirts, libraries are a unique part of the American fabric whose continuation is deliciously predictable. While challenged to grow and adapt with the times, libraries are here to stay because, much more than repositories for printed books, they are a vital thread of the fabric weaving our nation together.