Well, they are.
My mother tells me that, as a girl, she spent a lot of time at the public library, because (a) it was safe, and (b) it was quiet. My mom is the thirteenth of fifteen children, born into hunger level poverty, so both of those things were in short supply.
We moved a few times when I was a kid, and I remember the public libraries in each place. In addition, we had school libraries and even a meaningful church library or two thrown in there.
My favorite two of all those libraries were the two where we lived starting (for me) at age 10. My hometown library was my favorite, and made summers bearable. The next town over had just built a new one (pictured) and I used it, too.
When you move to a new town or neighborhood, you typically don’t have friends there. It’s quite a change for kids, particularly when you are used to having lots of them where you moved from. This was the situation my sister, brother and I were in the summer of 1972. My brother was starting high school with summer band though, and my sister was at the same high school she’d been at, and could drive.
I knew no one, and was going to be starting 5th grade at a new school that fall.
My first visit to the town library was our first full week in our new (to us) house. My mom, who taught school and so was home for the summer, took me to explore.
The library was in a very nondescript one story building. No fancy landscaping or architecture.
The children’s books were second thing on the right as we entered, just past the checkout desk. I realized within seconds I’d just entered a gold mine. For this library had the thing I was most looking for, yet couldn’t find in book stores: old books.
I think my love of old books started the prior year, when our teacher read us the first of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I realized that kids of my parent’s or grandparent’s times had led totally different types of lives, which I found fascinating. Before radio, television, or electric power in houses. Or maybe just before television, but, radically different than I knew.
I wanted more of that, and here it was.
My mom also found some books she wanted, and, after getting library cards, we were able to exit with a decent first haul. And the two week time to return meant a guaranteed trip back.
Libraries are magical for lots of reasons, of course. One of them is that we build monuments to those things we think are most important. When a child knows there are always collections of books available for borrowing, no matter where the family moves to, she or he knows society values books. The library in the next town over seemed like a palace to me, and there is magic in being someplace important — one that, as adults, we lose sight of, until maybe we feel it again by going somewhere famous.
Schools. Libraries. Football fields. Public pools. Grocery stores. Restaurants. As a kid, these are all magic. I see infants looking around in wonder in grocery stores, while their unnoticing parents hurriedly gabble away on their phones, oblivious to the sheer sort of ecstasy going on a few inches away.
Which is a shame, really.
When I went to visit my mom in Arizona last month, she took me to the library of the Assisted Living facility she lives in. They have newspapers, books, and magazines, and a computer memory game they’re all encouraged to play daily. So we did, together, laughing through much of it.
Old age and Parkinson’s are serious things, as is facing it with her children thousands of miles away. But my mom and I were back in a library, and the magic still happens there, just like it did forty-six years ago for a ten year old boy trying to fit into a new neighborhood, and just like it was for a little girl 30 years before that, trying to escape poverty and chaos.
Libraries are magic, magical monuments erected to something sacred, a chance to communicate directly with our own past. If we become too disconnected from the past, feeling it has nothing left to teach us, we lose the ability to focus even on the present. To truly know where we are, we must remember where we came from.
For if we forget that, the only monuments left will be monuments to ignorance.
And we can’t afford any more of those.
Photo credit : Niceville Public Library. 19–. Black & white photonegative. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. Accessed 20 May. 2018.