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Hate the Library?

Today I went to the library, not to check out anything or even to do research but simply to find a quiet place to work.  I am lucky that a five minute walk takes me to a shaded university campus and its large, musty-smelling library.  The minute I walked in the door and inhaled, I felt at home.

The first time I recall entering this library was in January after Katrina when I began taking some literature courses at the university.  One of my first classes included a tour.  The library had suffered because of the storm.  The basement had flooded and original Beethoven compositions had been lost.  The fourth floor was now empty, and throughout the library, the air conditioning system consisted of massive tubes of flexible, plastic duct pierced on the underside and suspended from the ceiling with cable ties.  But the books still stood in quiet, comfortable rows with their call numbers neatly printed on their spines.  As we were conducted through the stacks, a fellow student leaned close to me and whispered, “I love books but I hate libraries.”

Hate libraries?  How could anyone, especially a student of literature, hate libraries?

The libraries of my past have been places of shelter and places of wonder.  In law school, we almost lived in the library. My chosen carrel stood by rows of legal journals and looked out on the front drive where the university bus periodically disgorged students hurrying to classes.  It was through that window that we watched the fall colors come and then the spring blossoms.   In graduate school, I used the library less but it was there that I experienced the mystery of shelving companions.  Working on a bibliographical assignment, I found, shelved right next to something like Dryden, a clutch of the most sexually explicit literature I’ve ever read.  (Yes, I promptly sat down on the floor between the stacks and read it!)  I worked in the library during my undergraduate career and have fuzzy memories of dozing at a sunny desk in a silent room.  In high school, the stacks in the middle of the room were only waist high so the librarian could maintain a vigilant look-out at all times.  I recall in particular a book entitled Jubilee.  I don’t remember the contents, only that it was about three inches wide and that very fact seemed to hold a delectable promise.

And then there was the County Library, not much bigger than a single room, lodged next to the town jail and tucked behind the courthouse.  We visited this library in the summer, most particularly to stock up for our annual vacation to the beach.  My memory can pick out four books.  One was about a young girl at the turn of the century.  What I remember is that she had to wear a tightly-cinched belt until a forward-thinking relative decided that young girls needed only a sash to allow full freedom of movement.  In another book, a girl summered on the coast in the Northeast in an old house.  I remember there was an attic.  And secrets.  Another one was The Lion’s Paw.  I have permanently etched in my mind the image of children walking down a dirt road carrying paint cans and feeling the wire handles digging into their hands.  The last is Rebecca, of which I need say nothing.

Though I grew up in a house filled with books and I live in one that may possibly contain even more, these four books—and, of course, hundreds of others since—are books I would not have read but for the library.  Way back then, when I opened them up, I could tell just from the smell that I was entering  a world of wonder.

I can tell the same thing now.  Hate the library?  Oh no.  I go with pleasure and when I arrive, I inhale deeply and I am home.

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