Public Libraries & Me: The Story of a Long-Time Love

Tonight was one of those cool summer evenings, the ones that are a respite in the heart of the heat. The husband had a meeting at church, but the kids and I already had plans, so we weren’t a bit troubled by his absence.

Our evening actually began three weeks ago tonight because that’s the earliest our local public library allows you to pick up your free tickets to their summer events. Well, truthfully, our evening began several weeks before that even, when I put June 8 and June 29 on my calendar. The 8th for the ticket pick-up, the 29th for our event!

At 6:30p, we headed out the door to pick up dinner at Shane’s Deli ( Now Shane’s wasn’t an essential part of our evening, but (to be honest) if I can avoid cooking, I do. And eating outside is one of my favorite things. So, since we were going to spend the evening outside, picking up dinner at Shane’s seemed just the thing.

By 6:45p, picnic basket in hand, we began to gather with other Moms and Dads and Grandmas and Grandpas and kids out on the lawn, the west patio to be precise. The library had set up a whole bunch of chairs. With our little picnic, though, we opted for our blanket on the lawn behind the chairs.

And so our lovely evening of theater began. For 60 minutes, the College of DuPage Summer Repertory Theater entertained us with their adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. The college student actors were energetic and entertaining, a perfect fit for their age-diverse audience. There was much audience participation and much laughter and a renewed appreciation for theatrical simplicity of costume.

So, there we sat for an hour, enjoying the breeze. Enjoying the company. Enjoying the production. And all because I received a flyer in the mail and chose to put the ticket date and the event date on my calendar. While it’s first come, first served, the tickets to this event, and others like it, are free. That’s just they way they roll at the public library. “You want to come to our concert? Sure! Just tell us how many tickets you need.”

As I sat enjoying the breeze and the story of a man-cub, I was reminded once again of all that I love about public libraries. My friend and neighbor, Sheroll, pointed out the simplest and the best part of public libraries: “They let you take a book home for free!” Seriously. The Wheaton Public Library has well over 400,000 books that they let people take home for free. In fact, they’re so comfortable doing this that last year alone they allowed over 1.3 million items go in and out of their doors. They even have a name for that: circulation. Because they count on the books going out and coming back in … circulating. And almost all the time, it works. I love that, even in this day of fierce independence and clear lines of ownership, we as a society are comfortable sharing our books. Why yes, we have some that we own at home. But there are so many more that we can use and return for the next person to use, and so on.

Back before bar codes and computerized check-out, back when each library book left the Circulation Desk with a date stamped on a pocket in the back, I remember enjoying looking at the dates. Of course, the only one that really mattered to me was the most recent one, the last one. That told me when I need to circulate the book on back to the library. But the other dates told me a story about where this book had been, or at least when.

There were the books that hadn’t left the library in years. I remember as a child thinking that these books must have been grateful that I’d come along to get them out of the house for a bit. And of course there were the well-loved books, the “velveteen rabbits” of the book world, covers worn with fingerprints, pages stained with ancient snacks and drinks, back pockets stamped with date after date after date, never more than 4 weeks apart.

You don’t even want to get me started about the genealogy computers or the audio books or the Summer Reading Clubs or the book discussion groups or shelf after shelf after shelf of endless stories and information just waiting to be devoured. Libraries are about possibilities. And public libraries are about possibilities for everyone, no matter if you can afford the Amazon prices or the Borders’ coffee. The fact is that I love Amazon (you can’t find a quicker, cheaper, more convenient way to get a book permanently into your house without leaving your house) and I love Borders and Barnes & Noble and so many independent booksellers here and there. And you can’t beat the feeling of owning a book — as an adult, as a child — owning a book is a wonderful thing. However, the possibilities of a public library are broader and deeper than I will ever have sitting on my shelves at home.

One of my earliest memories of a public library is during the summertime as a child. I lived in St. Davids, PA. Our library, the Radnor Memorial Library, housed their Children’s Library in the basement (do they all do that?). I remember the cool of the air conditioning in the summer heat (we had none at home). I remember the dusty smell as we headed downstairs. I remember learning that the J stood for “Juvenile” and Juvenile meant that these books were for kids. And I remember the stacks I would bring home each time we stopped by — stacks of adventures and mysteries and oh so many possibilities.

Another memory I have is from middle school. The Radnor Memorial Library was moving. Our community had built a beautiful, new building to house our growing collection. The building was complete. The shelves were ready. And books needed to be moved … across the street. The middle school was just around the corner, so the students of Radnor Middle School were conscripted to pass the books hand to hand from the old library to the new. Picture an old-time fire-brigade, everyone lined up handing buckets of water for one person to the next. Except we were handing stacks of books. I remember some of the boys joking about intentionally getting the books out of order. But somehow we all participated in this wonderful community event. And somehow the books got to the shelves where they were supposed to be.

Of course, the reason why the books made it to their shelves is all of that wonderful coding on their bindings. I must admit that this is one piece of the attraction of libraries for me. “A place for everything and everything in its place,” my Dad always says. And what clearer picture of this mantra than books in a library. A different organizational system for fiction and non-fiction (what a brilliant man, that Dewey). I think it was the summer between 8th and 9th grade when I organized my personal library at home by authors’ last name (fiction) and by Dewey Decimal code (non-fiction). Some of those books, at my parents’ house, still have the small pieces of paper I taped to the binding with their reference.

And now, I bring my own children to the Wheaton Public Library. Sometimes they are drawn to the shelves of VHS tapes and DVDs and I try to re-direct them to the books. That’s different than when I was a kid. But most of our visits are a journey of discovery. We look for authors we know we like. We look for genres we’ve recently become acquainted with. We devour the Battle of the Books shelves. The children love the option for self-checkout. What power in their little hands! And they love having their own library cards and printing out their own list of books checked out. They like to keep track of when the books are due back.

I’ve been saddened this summer that our library is closed on Fridays. The Library says that it is due to City budget cuts. Wow. That is the recession hitting very close to home. I guess I should have expected it, but it kind of took me by surprise. I don’t know enough about the City’s budget to have much to say about these budget cuts. But I know one thing: I feel privileged to live and have lived in communities where we have wonderful public libraries. This is one of those things that I am glad for my taxes to go toward.

Whatever the economy is doing, however our City budget is being managed, let’s be sure to leave room in our public libraries for the magic and the possibilities. They are the stuff of childhood and the building blocks of adulthood.

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