“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
After a winter in Sanibel, we’re home in Minnesota now. While others might miss Florida sun, the beach, and golf, I’m going to miss the library. What, you say, the library?
I’ve always loved libraries. My first was the one on Market Street in Wilmington, N. C., where my mother took me when I was a young girl. Maybe she dropped me off or perhaps I was older because I remember being on my own in this wonderful old building where I first discovered my love of books and reading.
You entered through a big wooden door guarded on the outside steps by two huge sleeping lions. A shaft of sunlight fell across the wood floor from a high window. And there was that certain library smell—maybe musty cellulose. But still enticing, interesting, complex.
The librarian sat behind her desk to your left carrying out the ritual of stamping cards and inserting the due-date card in the pocket of every book that left her domain. To the right was a reading room with long mahogany tables, hanging maps, newspapers, and lots of large red encyclopedias, atlases, and other reference books.
Beside the librarian’s desk, in its formidable wooden cabinet of small drawers was the card catalogue. Every book in the library had its own card with identifying Dewey Decimal numbers and information about the book. There were no computers or electronic databases in those days. Everything was done by hand.
My favorite place in the library was the stacks. At the end of the hallway was a large room with rows and rows of metal shelves lined with books that stretched way over my head. There were ladders and step stools to reach them. The fun of the stacks was in the discovery. Even if I went in search of one certain book, it was often all those around it that most fascinated me.
I don’t remember a children’s room, but somehow, maybe on a certain shelf or two, I found Nancy Drew and Sue Barton. Over the years, I read mysteries and then later novels and adventure stories like Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki. I still remember my tears as I turned the final pages of Black Beauty.
In the completely renovated Sanibel Public Library, I can look out large windows onto a small brackish river. A reading porch overlooks the water. As I sat on the porch a few days before we left, two iguanas, a large bright orange and brown one and a smaller green one, munched away on the grass below until they heard voices and scurried toward the water. The week before, an osprey settled in the tree above looking for fish.
I can easily be distracted from my writing and reading here. I might stop to chat with someone working on a jigsaw puzzle. Beside a shelf of books sit two chess boards all set up and waiting for players. There are no stacks to settle into in order to avoid distractions. In this library, low open shelves, some on rollers, sit next to comfortable reading chairs.
A few days ago, in the downstairs meeting room, I dropped in on a talk by Duane Shaffer, one of the librarians and a World War II historian. He brought to life the 1941 sinking of two WWII battleships: the Bismarck and the HMS Prince of Wales. I didn’t know that battleships could be so interesting—another example of the joy of discovery to be found in libraries.
Of course, not all libraries are like this one on a Florida island. Some metropolitan public libraries have become gathering places for the homeless. Many libraries today struggle with inadequate funding and the challenges of digitalization.
Yet libraries remain free and open, truly democratic places where anyone can sit and read–and maybe, if they’re lucky, even see an iguana.
Writing Prompt: Take yourself to a library near you. Write and observe. Make a list of all the libraries you can remember. Then free-write for ten-minutes to see where you can go as you reflect on libraries. Maybe you will create an essay or build a story or spin out a poem about a library.
Here are five wonderful poems about libraries for inspiration.
Also see Susan Orlean’s new book, The Library Book, for an extended work of creative investigation as she explores the role of libraries in her life and delves into the story of the fire that destroyed the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986. Neil Gaiman’s essay on libraries is also worth a look.