Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Library

One of my favorite magazines is Spirituality and Health, and one of my favorite columns is written by Thomas Moore. In the current issue, he writes about building a spiritual library, and remarks about how libraries are changing as a result of technology. He writes:

"[Today] libraries are busy making the transition from the quiet house of revered ideas to the more mundane information center. The library is undergoing a process of secularization that entails a loss of soul."

Personally, I am struggling with these changes. I went to church as a kid, but the library always seemed like a much more holy place. I often thought that if I were God, I’d much prefer hanging out in a building filled with many different books about the vast world I’d created, rather than a building that only had just multiple copies of one book all about me (two if you counted the hymnal). Moore says this more eloquently, writing:

"[The] connections between the book and the sacred suggest that a library, too, is a holy place. It is a place where you go to reflect, learn, meditate, and incubate your thoughts."

The truth is, our church was very family friendly, and despite everyone’s best efforts there was a fair amount of rowdiness: kids climbing over pews, Matchbox cars being sent down the center aisle, an occasional foray behind the pulpit by a child looking for an errant ball or crayon that had escaped from his grasp. In the library, though, people behaved themselves: it was a quiet and respectful place, the silence only marred by the thunk of a thick hardcover on the mahogany circulation desk. It was a place where I TIPTOED. The librarians terrified me, partly because I was a quick and voracious reader at a fairly young age, and I always suspected they hated me for checking out so many books and returning them 3 days later. I really did read them, but you can understand their suspicions. (Years later, in an odd bout of kismet, I would find myself far upstate trapped in a speeding car with one of those librarians. At the wheel was a good-hearted but lead-footed elderly woman, who was hell-bent on giving me and the librarian a tour of her town. It was a harrowing experience.)

The library I grew up in set a high standard, and no matter where I have lived over the years, it is what comes to mind when I think “library”. It was actually really small, but it had high ceilings and it felt very grand to me. I loved walking up the path, and I loved the big leafy trees outside. I loved walking through the heavy front door, and I always felt like I had arrived somewhere important when the door closed behind me. I loved reading all the community notices on the bulletin boards that lined the tiny front hall. I loved the tiny little “study rooms” off the big main area, and I loved the small, twin curved staircases that led to a small mezzanine. The stairs were roped off with red velvet ropes, and it vexed me to no end that I was not allowed up there. I spent hours of my life imagining what treasures that space might hold. I also loved the card catalog, which was big and made of oak, with long and heavy drawers that had a solid brass pull tab that you grasped to pull them open. Those drawers made their own quieter thunk when shut. And the smell…indescribable, really, but even after a major renovation the place still smells the way it did when I was eight.

I’ve frequented many other libraries in my life. My college library was where I first learned how to type a paper on what had to be one of the first Mac computers ever manufactured, a small putty-colored box that was smaller than a television set. Later, there was the old library in midtown Memphis that was filled with sleeping homeless men (who quite frankly stank, but were quiet except for an occasional snore), and then the new shiny modern one with misspelled words on the sculpture out front (I think they were eventually sandblasted off and corrected). For awhile the Maine State library was my library, as it was within walking distance of both my apartment and office. It shared a building with the Maine State Museum, which was often filled with rowdy kids on field trips, but the library itself was always fairly quiet, perhaps because its patrons were usually grown-ups doing research.

My current public library is cited by several sources as being the first public library in the US, which I find fascinating. But here’s my complaint: the library isn’t a quiet place any more. I can handle the clacking of computer keys and the whirr of a printer here and there. But hardly anyone seems to abide by the no cell phone rule, and I haven’t seen anyone try to enforce it. Everyone talks in a regular voice, not a whispered hush. Kids chase each other around the stacks. Teenagers gossip with their friends. It's just like church now! The other thing I've noticed is that most of the traffic seems to be in the DVD movie section. I realized last weekend that more than anything else, the library has become a Blockbuster store, just with better architecture. They even have video games.

After a particularly loud and rowdy visit, I grumbled about it on Facebook. A friend of mine chastised me for wanting relative quiet in a public place. “Everybody shut up, it’s a public pool! It’s a public tennis court!” he chided me. I suppose maybe it's old fashioned to want quiet these days, and perhaps it is simply a sign that I am really headed into middle age and am soon going to start all my sentences with, "When I was a girl...". But, like Moore, I can't help but feel that libraries - while clearly public spaces - are less a community recreational center than a sacred community space, something to be not just used, but...valued in a certain special way. "Don't let progress remove all traces of the sacred in our libraries, only to enshrine the quantitative life and the preference for information over wisdom", Moore writes. For me, I suppose can't fault libraries for changing with the times, and I can't fault people for checking out DVD's instead of literature, but I too worry we are losing a certain sacredness. We're certainly losing the silence.

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