This Is Us

I Miss Libraries

At the library, you could say yes to everything

Blurry photo of library book shelves.
Blurry photo of library book shelves.
Photo: Zephyr18/Getty Images

Recently, my children and I walked by our shuttered library and my nine-year-old son said, as if recounting a dream, “Remember… libraries? Doesn’t it seem crazy that you could just go in whenever you wanted? And there would be lots of other people there? And then you could pick whichever books you wanted and take them home for free?!”

It suddenly seemed like a thing that couldn’t possibly be real.

I’ve always loved libraries (heck, I wrote a novel about a librarian, which is obviously my secret fantasy job) but it took my kid’s observation to make me realize that I miss libraries so, so much.

And I don’t mean the hushed stacks of my childhood library, where I hid for hours devouring every single Wizard of Oz volume — I’ve been missing those for decades.

My busy branch never has the book you’re looking for, which inevitably leads to finding the book you need.

I mean the noisy chaos of the urban libraries that have been part of my weekly routine since my kids were old enough not to chew on their board books. I mean the concrete cubes full of tweens playing games on screaming computers, and standing-room-only storytimes, and information boards papered with notices in every language on earth. Our local branch was always filled to the brim: baby-minders with endless hours to occupy; senior citizens looking to get free digital literacy lessons; new Americans in search of English conversation practice and resume help. It was a meeting place for teenagers bored after school; a cooling center during heat waves. It was a beneficent presence in a tough city, a haven for people with nowhere else to go.

We checked out our last stack of Wimpy Kids and Timmy Failures a couple months ago. We’re fortunate in that, for us, missing libraries doesn’t have to mean missing new books — in fact, I just placed an order at my local bookstore. But what I miss about libraries isn’t really the books. It’s the sense of possibility. I thoroughly researched the books I ordered from the store. At the library, you wander in, planless, browse the shelves, blithely judge books by their covers. My busy branch never has the book you’re looking for, which inevitably leads to finding the book you need.

Because libraries are places of abundance. Where else can you look at something, be only 13% sure you want it, and bring it home anyway, risk-free? Where else can you say to your children, “Pick out anything you want, anything at all.” I’m not rich, but at the library I could be extravagant. My kids and I could shuffle home under the weight of our books and scatter them on the living room floor, picking through our choices like Roman emperors.

What’s more, public libraries are forgiving in a way many cultural institutions aren’t. Kids destroy most things they touch for a good percentage of their growing years, or at least mine do. But whenever I’d sheepishly take a battered Boxcar Children book back to our branch, showing our local librarian the page that had been torn in a reading frenzy, she would shrug and tell us not to worry, and show my daughter a great Boxcar read-alike she might want to tear through next.

My casual attitude toward germs used to mean I was a relaxed mother, not a pathogen-spewing killer.

Yes, library books were always kind of gross, especially the children’s ones (maybe because of my children, actually — sorry about that). But it used to not matter. I used to be able to think, Okay, this Elephant and Piggie is mysteriously sticky? Fine, we’ll wipe it down, whatever. My casual attitude toward germs used to mean I was a relaxed mother, not a pathogen-spewing killer.

I miss not caring who had my book last, and even delighting in the evidence left behind by previous readers: the to-do list tucked between the pages, the bookmark from another era. Who knows how we’ll feel about sharing books with strangers in the future?

Here’s the thing. Adult life, and especially parenting, is so often about saying no: No you can’t have chocolate eclairs for dinner; no you can’t stay up all night; no you can’t banish your sibling to Siberia. Right now there’s even more of that, and it’s even weirder: No you can’t go to school; no you can’t play with your friends; no you can’t go outside and breathe the air. No I can’t tell you when things will be back to normal.

If only we could go to the library. We’d head over on a Saturday morning and the kids would lean their scooters in the vestibule, casually, trustingly. The chairs would be full of every kind of human. We’d say hi to friends, we’d smile at acquaintances. My kids would disappear and this would not concern me at all; I’d be struck by something on the new release shelf and sit down to flip through it, wantonly touching it all over. The kids would accumulate piles of the worst books imaginable, books I would never pick out for them in a million years: mind-numbing novelizations of video games; comic book dumb-downs of classics; formulaic series lazily below their reading level — a huge stack sure to snap the straps of my tote bag.

“Mama, can we get all of these?” they’d say.

And I’d say, “Yes, of course, let’s get every single one.”

Topic Lead for Writing @ Medium // Editor of Human Parts // Novels: Unseen City; The Mermaid of Brooklyn; How Far Is The Ocean From Here

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