The Beauty of the Public Library
I will be perfectly honest with you. Sometimes I come home from my job at the public library and I think, I can’t do it any more. It’s too much. But the next day, I tell myself about all the beauty there.
Let me start with the books. Maybe you think that public libraries have less and less to do with books all the time. But there is a steady rhythm of books coming in and out of the library. Books coming off and going onto the shelves. The books on the shelves are alive, they hum and breathe, in and out, they have a song that everyone listens to when they’re in the building. Every book has its own frequency, and every listener has their own frequency, and they create a glorious and magical hum, back and forth, in and out, resting, resting, breathing.
So the books are beautiful on their shelves and the books are this steady, silent background music. And then there is this air and swirl of so many humans, coming in and out of the building. My branch is one of the busiest branches in the city. I think about the sheer number of humans with whom I make eye contact in a day. It’s astounding. It’s beautiful. And sometimes it’s hard.
There is also cake when you work at the library and the cake is beautiful, too. Everyone who has worked in a library knows that there is very often a cake in the lunch room. Our staff is large and so there is a cake nearly once a week to celebrate a birthday. Maybe as someone who comes into the front of the library, you don’t so much need to know about the abundance of cake. But I think it says something about who we are, we library workers. We celebrate each other. We are celebrators. Recently at my branch, some of us have suffered pet losses. And there are flowers and cards for those occasions and other sad ones. We care for each other. And when we come out of the backroom, we continue to go on caring for those who come into our building, this place that hums and breathes, and has its own frequency.
Once, there was singing coming from the women’s washroom and a co-worker said to me, someone must have taken a CD player in there. It was an opera aria, I think. But then a young girl comes out and it’s quiet. I asked her if she was singing and she said yes, and sorry. We told her she was amazing and not to be sorry, not one little drop.
This week someone showed me impressive scars from a recent surgery and told me the story around that. I started to think about all the times people have shown me their literal and symbolic scars and the stories they have told me of what they have overcome. It speaks to the trust and the relationships we have built with people. Likewise, we often hear the stories behind tattoos – stories about the loved ones the tattoo celebrates or commemorates, milestones reached, or what it symbolizes.
Once, while waking up a homeless person to see if they were okay, I asked (as I usually do) if they needed anything, if they feel okay, and if they would like a glass of water. They said yes, they did need water. When I brought them back a glass of water, the person said, “oh, I thought it was just a question you asked. You really brought me me a glass of water!” After that we had a pretty cool conversation.
Once, I helped someone find some Shakespeare plays, and some movies. King Lear, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet. With his arms filled with Shakespeare we chatted and at the end he was just so happy and said, “I’ve never been able to talk with anyone about Shakespeare. This has been so great.”
Once, on the front desk, I found out from a family member that a longtime member of my library book club had died and I was so close to bursting into tears. But I did my best to share how much she had meant to all of us with the family member and what a valued member of our group she had been and that was very good. She had such a great sense of humour and great stories. At our next meeting we all talked about how lovely she had been.
If you stay at the library long enough, you have the privilege to watch kids grow up. They often start off as a bit unruly. But you stick with them. Thank them for pushing in their chair when they stand up. Pretty soon, they’re pushing in their chair when they leave. You ask them how their day was and they tell you pretty sweet things, sometimes sad stuff. They sometimes get in a mild bit of trouble. But they see that you’re still rooting for them. A few years later, you get to feel a bit of pride for being some small good influence on them.
A library is a lot of things. But I can tell you in my experience that it is beautifully alive. The library hums and breathes and sometimes sings.
I think I’ve shared this quotation by Caitlin Moran before, but I love it and I think it gets at what I’m fumbling around trying to say here:
“A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate “need” for “stuff.” A mall—the shops—are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier. But a library is where the wealthy’s taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead. A satisfying reversal. A balancing of the power.”
– Caitlin Moran
I often say that libraries are magical places. But in a certain way they are filled with the ordinary. So much of what we do is mundane. It’s quite possible to spend half of one’s shift showing people how to use the photocopier. But if I thought what I was doing was about photocopying, I wouldn’t have lasted this long. It’s about the connection you make and the conversations you have while showing someone how to scan this thing that is incredibly important to them.
There can be so much beauty in the ordinary. There is so much beauty at the public library.