A Love Letter to Libraries, Long Overdue

The New York Times sent photographers to seven states to document the thrum and buzz in buildings once known for silence.

Top Photo: In Seattle, the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library provides services to people who are unable to read standard print material. Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” is part of the collection.Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

By Elisabeth Egan and Erica Ackerberg – NY Times – 14 February

“Step into a public library and you know what to expect.

First, there’s the smell: a paper bouquet of nothing and everything, including notes of vanilla, sawdust, wet coats, rubber soles and school. Then there are the spines lined up like soldiers, snug in plastic jackets. There are the shelves — metal, wood, sturdy as trees — stretching in every direction.

There are the rolling step stools. The windowsill ferns. The free bookmarks. The bulletin board papered with fliers advertising firewood, a 10-speed bike, free kittens, CPR class.

There are the sturdy armchairs, the picked-over magazine racks, the award-winning dioramas on loan from adolescent creators, the study carrels etched with decade-old graffiti. There’s the water fountain spouting the coldest beverage in town, a different vintage from the lukewarm dribble in the school gym or the violent torrent at the Y.M.C.A.

There are the overhead lights casting their fluorescent glow, occasionally flickering, flattering no one except people who live on the page. Still, they get the job done.

And above it all — hovering over the murmurs and coughs and scraping of chair legs and gurgle of fish tanks and crackle of plastic covers — there is a weighted blanket of quiet, that reassuring hush we’re hard-wired to expect from our inaugural visit to the children’s room. Whether you first crossed that threshold in the scrum of a class trip or clutching your mom’s hand; whether your hometown library was on a country road or at a busy intersection; whether you put your library card to good use or used it to pick locks; odds are good that, at some point, someone touched an index finger to their lips and shared the universal password for the kingdom of words: “Shhhh.”

But this sentiment doesn’t really apply anymore. It hasn’t for a long time.

Just as reading has changed (from paper to pixel to audio) and tools for research have streamlined (sorry, World Book), so have the places that house the goods. Silence is no longer a requirement; versatility is.

This 14-year-old patron, who is visually impaired, moved with her family from India to Seattle after her father discovered the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library while he was on a business trip. He felt that there would be more opportunities for her in the United States.Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

It’s easy to romanticize libraries. But, the fact is, they’re not “just” about the written word. Were they ever? As local safety nets shriveled, the library roof magically expanded from umbrella to tarp to circus tent to airplane hangar. The modern library keeps its citizens warm, safe, healthy, entertained, educated, hydrated and, above all, connected.

Imagine a teacher who’s responsible for a mixed-age classroom where students are free to wander in and out as they please, all opinions are welcome and detention is not an option. This person is also the principal, the guidance counselor, the school nurse and, occasionally, the janitor. This person is your local librarian.

Esha More, a volunteer audiobook narrator, spoke into a microphone in Seattle.Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Tim

Yet somehow librarians still find time to match people with the books they need. These selections may be second-guessed by irate taxpayers who don’t know the difference between F. Scott Fitzgerald and L. Ron Hubbard or don’t understand that ideas and stories aren’t contagious; the only disease they’ll infect you with is empathy. Nevertheless, librarians persist. One could argue that they distribute more wings than an airline pilot. Put yours to good use and you can fly anywhere.

Libraries have always been a place of worship for a certain type of person, but they’re also community centers, meeting houses and pop-up medical clinics, offering vaccines, homework help, computer classes, craft sessions and tax advice. Perhaps you need fresh needles, marigold seeds, a loaner guitar, a hammer, a venue for your knitting club or a donation box for your old eyeglasses? Head to your local library. It might have you covered and, if it doesn’t, someone there will know where to send you.

Toddlers chased bubbles in Chicago’s Northtown Branch Library.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Best of all, you never need a reason or an invitation to go to the library. You aren’t required to make a reservation ahead of time or purchase a cup of coffee while you’re there. You can pop in when your Wi-Fi is on the fritz or you need a break from your roommates. You might go there to dry off or to cool down. To study for algebra or to read a romance novel. To stock up on thrillers or to take stock of your less-than-thrilling life. To meet a friend or to be alone. For a bit of excitement or for a moment of calm.

Last fall, The New York Times sent photographers to cities, suburbs and rural areas in seven states to document how different libraries respond to the needs of their communities, and the many ways in which patrons find a haven in each one.

At the time, the news was full of grim dispatches from the land of letters. In Colorado, two branches closed because of meth contamination. In McFarland, Calif., city leaders debated whether to convert a library into a police station. In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams proposed massive budget cuts that would slash library hours and programming. The American Library Association announced that attempts to ban books were accelerating across the country at a rate never seen since tracking began more than 20 years ago.

The bookmobile has been a fixture of the library system in Cass County, Minn., since 1966. Here, a kindergarten class took stock of the offerings.Credit…Jaida Grey Eagle for The New York Times

It was enough to make you wonder if the ancient tradition of book lending was going the way of card catalogs.

Then the photos started to roll in, and they told a different story. In this version, toddlers tried to catch bubbles on the loose in the library. Grateful seniors welcomed monthly deliveries of movies and crime novels. Teenagers strummed guitars together. Children and caregivers gathered beneath technicolor trees to listen to a picture book read by a beaming librarian. In a different time zone, another librarian worked contentedly in the cozy oasis of a bookmobile.

It was impossible to look at these pictures and not feel hopeful about the state of humanity, especially with several seasons of isolation still fresh in our minds. Remember when you were craving the casual comfort of strangers? Remember when the simple act of checking out a book felt like a small miracle?

Sitting in a windowless room in Times Square, scrolling from library to library, state to state, we were unexpectedly moved by the color, light and joy at our fingertips. These glimpses into lives of strangers were a reminder that copies of the books piled on our desks at the Book Review will soon land on shelves in libraries across the country and, eventually, in the hands of readers. You’ll pass them to other people, and on and on.

We all know that books connect us, that language has quiet power. To see the concentration, curiosity and peace on faces lit by words is to know — beyond a shadow of a doubt, in a time rife with shadows — that libraries are the beating hearts of our communities. What we borrow from them pales in comparison to what we keep. How often we pause to appreciate their bounty is up to us.

At the Carver Branch Library in Austin, Texas, a mural on an exterior wall hinted at the vibrancy of the community inside.Credit…Miranda Barnes for The New York Times

NB:I edited out some of The NY Times photos and focused on the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library, which is in Seattle.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s