If I can bring you into my prosaic world: I’m writing this 35,000 feet up in my compact plane seat, tray table down, elbows in, laptop jostling on the turbulence. I’m on my way back from speaking at the annual American Library Association conference and am delirious with library love.
This was my first time attending the meeting. Michelle Obama was there. Sally Fields, too. Not to namedrop, but to namedrop. Fandemonium of this magnitude is collectively appreciated. I’d heard about the ALA gatherings, seen the hashtags on Twitter, the Facebook posts, and Instagram videos of rooms full of books and their librarian knights. But this was the first time I had the pleasure of attending to discuss the exciting releases of fall 2018.
I’ve long been a loudmouthed proponent of supporting our independent bookstores—national troves of story sharing. But when I think back about my development as a reader and writer, I didn’t grow up in bookstores. Not until college did hanging out at my local bookshop café become a trendy thing. Before then, it was libraries. Always libraries. So I hope you pardon me while I gush a spell in tribute…
All of my first books were library copies, borrowed on behalf of my mother’s library card, which was as revered and all-giving as our family bank card. Library copies had to be taken extra special care, too. No summer lemonade cups leaving dewy rings on the covers. No crinkled pages or dirty fingers while reading. The entire McCoy clan’s reputation was at stake. If abused, we might lose our privileges to the library kingdom and then what? How would I spend my leisure hours??
I distinctly remember having one decision crisis the summer after the first grade. My library copy of Tikki Tikki Tembo was due back, but I wanted to read it one last time before returning. A day late meant a fee of 10 cents, which would leave me 10 cents short of the creamsicle I’d hoped to purchase. A civilian ice cream truck was permitted to pass through our military barracks only one day a week. So that meant seven treat-less days in exchange for one more with TTT and his brother Chang. I couldn’t ask my parents for the extra bit. My mom and dad, an elementary teacher and an Army officer, did not approve of tardiness or ice cream before dinner. So the choice and the payment would be mine.
After nearly an hour of ruminating (in which time I could’ve read my library copy and had the creamsicle too), I decided in favor of the book. The ice cream truck would come round all summer but who knew when I might be able to take out Tikki Tikki Tembo again. (It was a very popular title.) I had no regrets. I paid my librarian my 10 cents and when the ice cream truck’s music jingled through our neighborhood, I bought a couple fireballs with my leftover change. No regrets.
This pattern of choosing library books continued throughout my life, no matter where I moved or how old I grew. One of my most beloved family friends to this day is my middle school librarian. (Waving hello to you, Mrs. Beall!) I was never one for cafeteria crowds, so Mrs. Beall graciously welcomed me into her library world, where I could eat quietly with a book and her good company. I treasured those hours. We talked about stories, about life, and how the two reflected different facets of each other. Years later, she came to my high school graduation party, my wedding, and all my book events. I can’t tell you where my schoolmates ended up, but my librarian is forever.
Libraries were the rich soil from which my imagination grew. I couldn’t have lived or been without them. Even in graduate school—well into my 20’s— I borrowed books and cuddled into the corners of my local university libraries. In fact, one of my most treasured objects is a library book that I salvaged. I was completing my MFA in English creative writing and studying the art of bildungsroman novels. I checked out a copy of Anne of Green Gables. My personal copies were all safely shelved at my parent’s home while I was off at university. To my astonishment, the only checkout copy the library had was coming apart at the seams—ancient and loved apart. I took it home and read it delicately, laid open on my clean desk, so as not to harm one more sinew of the binding. After I finished, I knew returning it would be its destruction. One more shelving and re-lending would end her. So I called the library and explained the perilous situation. I offered to buy the library two new books to replace the battered one. (I am a firm believer that Lucy Maud Montgomery should be read in pairs and kindred groups.) The head librarian gratefully agreed. So the deal was struck. Library patrons got fresh lending copies and I put the sweet, old girl to “bed” in my precious treasures box. It was two years later, after I’d moved across the country to Texas, that I discovered that the copy was published in 1908—the second printing. It’s priceless. There’s no denying: libraries are treasure troves. Every book should be treated as a precious gem. Every page, a golden leaflet.
With so much of our modern world shared electronically, I wondered—feared—how the hard-copy culture of libraries fared with the younger generations. Were libraries going the way of LP record stores and Blockbuster VHS rentals of the past?
Seeing New Orleans overtaken by a tsunami of librarians, my faith was restored. Each of these library castles, dotting every township across the nation, acts as a living story antenna. Reading is thriving and emitting wave after wave of insightful catalyst with each recommendation. Literature is the only active community that is indiscriminate of race, politics, religion, age, socioeconomic status, or gender. Librarians are the noble royalty of that kingdom. They are my heroes and my hope. Thank you, librarians!
What is one of your favorite library memories?
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