A Numinous Morning at the Library

Some days, my work feels mundane. I love what I do, of course, but the negative of working somewhere you love is that the place loses some of its magic. This afternoon, for example: I spent time reordering damaged books, pulling new teen books for a YA display, and talking to patrons. Good, happy work, but what is usual. 

But some shifts feel numinous, somehow. The library can never feel for me the way it felt before I worked here (I can't smell that library scent anymore, for example), but as I come to understand the library's moods, its weather patterns and shifting people, I find a deeper, more connected sort of magic. That is how this morning felt, so here is a story told in vignettes​ that perhaps will mean something only to me...

Before the library opens, I take thirty seconds to stand at the tall windows and look at the mountains in the morning light. The air is finally starting to get a little bit clearer here, and the middle parts of the mountains are starting to turn orange in spots; this view of Cascade framed by the library windows is one of my favorites. I turn on computers and set out newspapers and wipe down keyboards. Then I clean up the blue toner powder that someone must've splattered last night onto the black-and-white printer, and then I unlock the doors.

It is a Friday morning, so my father's old friend Craig stops by. We talk about hiking, and of the peacefulness of being in mountains that no one goes to. He tells me, as he does every Friday morning, how he misses my dad and wishes they could go on a desert walk with him again. "Of course, we were always looking down at the ground, watching for flakes of arrowheads," he says, because twenty years ago you could wander the Utah desert and find arrowheads. "I know now it's illegal and wrong to take them," Craig says, "so now I leave them. But when I find one I always think your dad lead me to it." I think about the morning we buried my dad, when I didn't want him to go into the dark without anything but his clothes, so I put one of his illegally-procured arrowheads in his pocket, and how the muscle of his thigh was also a stone. For a moment it is entirely absurd that my father's friend Craig, walking carefully and slowly with his cane on his stroke-twisted legs, is here in the library talking to me about books, hiking, and arrowheads, and my dad is...where, I don't know for sure, but his body is in the ground and in his pocket there is a stone.

I help an older woman learn how to download e-books onto her iPad. At first she is unsure but as we move through the steps she starts to understand. I think about how baffling our world can be to someone raised in the 50s, when refrigerators were finally affordable enough that middle-class families could have them, washing machines were becoming popular, and the credit card was just becoming a reality (but only, of course, for men).  Our technology now is nearly ephemeral...you don't really hold​ an e-book, you never touch an e-audio book, but it still gets you to a story. I can't help wondering, every time I help someone who is initially baffled by—or actually a little bit afraid of this technology—what the world will be like in another twenty or thirty years. What else will we invent before I am dead? And will I be the brave sort, always trying new things, or the kind who is afraid?

I help another older patron who tells me that she hates fiction, especially that "wild, made-up sciencey stuff" but she wants to read something from the Great American Read list. (Which doesn't have any non-fiction.) After we talk for a little while, I get her three books in large print: Anne of Green Gables, which she'd never read but enjoyed the movies, To Kill a Mockingbird, which she'd read "years and years ago" but would really like to read again, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, which she'd never heard about but agreed sounded like something she would love. I always ask the patrons on crutches or with canes if they'd like me to get their books for them, and she says she would love that. I do this to help them, but also as a sort of good-karma thing for myself, as one day I will be an old woman but still need books, and hopefully there will be someone in the future who will help me access them if I can't get to them myself.

I check people in to use our study rooms, I help a woman figure out how to see the order of a series, I tell another woman where to find Colleen McCullough's novels, and I walk an elderly gentleman over to the biography section. I have a conversation with a man who has the same name and spelling as my husband's deceased brother; we talk for a bit about how much more difficult it is to trace back Scandinavian names as the change from -sen to -dottir and back again through the line. I confess I don't know as much as I should about my husband's line, but I can trace my McCurdy line all the way back to the Scottish MacCurdy clans. 

I read my email and get caught up on book group reservations.

A small blond girl in a pink dress, perhaps two, has wandered over the bridge to my side of the library, without her mother. I watch her for a minute to see if anyone is coming to look for her. She stands calmly by one of our sculptures, which is of a crouched man. Done in alabaster that looks like the flesh of raw muscle, this sculpture is either terrifying or fascinating to our little patrons. She just stands and looks at it, carefully touching the ear. I walk over to her and ask if she knows where her mom is. She pops her binki out of her mouth, shrugs, and says "nope. Let's go find her." She puts her binki back in her mouth and reaches up to hold my hand. Her tiny fingernails are painted turquoise. We wander over to the children's section and in a few minutes find her mom, who didn't realize her daughter Kate (she told me her name with another quick binki removal) was missing. As I walk back to my desk, I remember my own days of bringing my kids to the library. I can almost feel how it felt to have their little hands in mine, and the sound of their voices, and the deep, lovely exuberance they brought to finding books at the library. For a moment I feel like all of my life has already been lived, and that every sweet, gentle moment is behind me; I swallow that familiar lump and get on with it, as there is no crying at the reference desk. (Except I cry all the time at the reference desk. Reticently.)

I go to the circulation office to see if there are any books to take downstairs with me. One of the librarians there tells me that she just last night read my essay in Baring Witness . She tells me that it's as good as anything she's read by Toni Morrison or Annie Dillard, which makes me laugh because of course it's not, but I am flattered anyway. I think about the night I did a reading with other writers whose essays are also in that book, and the way I got to a part of my essay that at first seems funny but then turns dark, and how the audience laughed and then went silent, how I felt them turn with me into the darkness, and how exhilarating it was to be, just for that moment, a person leading other people into the darkness of human nature, and how that is the one time in my life I have really, really felt like a writer.

The general reference desk is usually a little bit quieter than the fiction desk, and this proves true this morning. When I switch desks there is a barrage: two guest passes for the internet computers, one patron needs help with printing, another can't find Fahrenheit 451 even though it's supposed to be on the shelf (it was; she thought it would be thicker so she didn't notice the slim spine), another can't decipher her own handwriting and wonders if I can figure out which author's last name she wrote down (we finally figure out it was Wingate, Lisa Wingate...I'm not sure I could recreate the steps it took me to get there). A patron needs headphones, another is turning in her headphones, another tells me her story of being annoyed by the process of getting a Utah driver's license. Two different patrons ask me where the YA section is, and another can't find the Brandon Mull book he's looking for (it's upstairs in the junior novels). In an hour I don't get any work done, other than helping patrons, which is fine because that's the point.

Just before I leave for lunch, a teenage patron comes to the desk. She should be in school right now, but instead she's here, asking me for a book. "A good book," she says, "but it can't be all cheery and happy and hopeful." She looks, walks, and dresses absolutely nothing like I did at her age, 16 and feeling like the world made no sense anywhere, but a little bit of sense (and peace, and streaming light, and quiet, and books) could be found at the library. But for just a second I am looking back through time at myself, angry and wild and rebellious and always wearing black, so I show her some books that I would've liked when that was me (The Infinity of You and Me, And We Stay, Belzhar, and The Carnival at Bray​; good, but not happy). I think about how long the library has been a place of solace for me, a place of framed views, of artwork, of quiet, of refuge. A long time; perhaps all my life, or at least as long as I can remember. And today I also remember this: it is a place of connection, a place where the layers of time slip a little, when all of my ancient Scottish ancestors catch a brief glimpse of the old woman I will become in the future, when my dad's hand holding an arrowhead reaches out for my teenage wrist with its ankh bracelet, where I can see my daughter's small fingers, nails painted pink, pulling a book from the shelf, where nothing is commonplace.
A place where magic happens.

Why Libraries Matter

Working as a librarian, I have had the opportunity to help people in many ways. Finding books, of course, magazines and newspapers and essays and poems and short stories and picture books and chapter books and biographies and how-to books and novels to scratch that “I want to read something really, really good” itch. Not to mention resources for research papers. I’ve helped patrons look for apartments, post their antiques for sale on Ebay, and find a solution to every conceivably imaginable “how do I do this on the computer?” question. And the printing! Photos from Facebook, divorce papers, tax forms, homework assignments, emails, resumes, obituaries. I’ve helped lost children find their moms and lost parents find their children. Sometimes patrons confuse the library for the phone directory, so I’ve looked up a bajillion different phone numbers. I’ve helped photocopy and scan. I’ve walked patrons to their call numbers hundreds of times. I’ve broken up arguments and been shouted at and once or twice shouted back. I have listened to people’s stories—so many different stories. Library edit
(Sometimes being a librarian is fairly similar to being a bartender, without the booze.) I’ve sent homeless men out the door with my worry. I’ve shown teenagers to the pregnancy section and hoped my body language spoke the compassion I felt for them. I’ve talked my librarian friends through their various crises. (As they have done for me.) I’ve helped bleeding patrons and strung out patrons but, luckily, never any puking patrons (one of the reasons I’m glad to work on the grown up side of the library). I’ve answered countless reference questions, some of them involving actual books.

I’ve been privileged to match the exact right book to the exact right patron and then had them come back and tell me thank you.

Last week, I had the opportunity to help in a way I never have before. A patron in a wheelchair, who had no legs, asked me if I would plug him in. He rolled over to the outlet and walked me through plugging his electric chair into the wall (various cords and electric boxes were required) so he could charge. I made sure he had something to read while his chair charged and he thanked me and I went back to my desk with a lump in my throat, feeling changed. There are many gratitudes I felt welling up behind that lump: that I have legs and can walk (and run and hike!). That technology exists to help people like him. That he asked me to help him so calmly and confidently, which suggests that other people have also helped him. That he asked me to help him; maybe this seems strange but it felt like an honor.

And it made me grateful for libraries.

I have been thinking about the importance of libraries since National Library Week. Ivanka Trump tweeted something inane about celebrating libraries and librarians and it made me fairly furious, seeing as how trump wants to cut off IMLS, which is the source of the majority of libraries’ funding. (Please, read this article with responses to her tweet, just so the combined outrage of many librarians can let you know that we’re not only introverts with our noses behind our books.) 

I hardly need POTUS’s daughter (or the jerk and his blind-sighted, backward-thinking, narrow-minded budget) reminding me that communities are valuing libraries less and less. Because in addition to helping people use the library every time I go to work, I also am told, in different ways but at almost every shift, that libraries are kind of lame. Patrons complain about hold lists, slow computers, damaged books, books we don’t own yet. They get annoyed at displays for different reasons. They say rude things like “this place is a dump” and “I only come here if I’m desperate” and “thank God I can afford to buy most of my own books.” And then there are the constant limitations that librarians and libraries are constantly bumping up against, because we only have a small budget to make this whole show work, and that means cutting corners when we wish we didn’t have to.

It’s not only inside the library, though, that I’m reminded. The world at large does this very well. I was once at a doctor’s appointment and the physician, upon hearing that I worked at the library, said “wait, the library is still open? I didn’t think people read actual books anymore, I thought they just read Kindles.” Or the city election a few years ago, when the good citizens of my town elected a vociferously anti-library person into the city council, which felt like the whole population marked the “libraries don’t matter” checkbox on their ballot. Or the way the publishing industry is declining. Or the way that intelligence, understanding, and learning are less important than wealth and body type and entertainment value.

So when trump’s budget plan included that IMLS cut, I wished that people would notice, but I didn’t expect anyone but the librarians would. I mean, wouldn’t it be awesome if we could have a march that was just about funding for the arts? (The NEA is just as important as the IMLS.) We could wear, I don’t know, books on our heads maybe, and think of the poster opportunities! But not many besides the librarians even really noticed.

Which brings me back to the legless man in the wheelchair at my library. Which brings me to me kneeling down and crawling around his wheelchair to get it all plugged in. Which brings me to knowing, and to wishing that the world at large could know, just how much libraries are not only about books.

Libraries, at their core, are about people.

And quite often they are about saving people, in both big and small ways.

A library saved me once, when I was an angry punky goth kind of girl, sluffing school because I couldn’t bear to walk into those high school doors. Sometimes I’d leave and drive around aimlessly, but sometimes I went to the library. No one else in the world knew where I was, except for the librarians, who left me alone. I’d sit somewhere and look out the window and read, and for a little while I’d feel a sort of peace wash over me. In the library, in my rebellious black phase, I felt safe.

Teenagers are saved with books that give them information about their problems—cutting and drinking and yes, sometimes unintended pregnancies. The elderly are saved with large-print books that bring them company and stories and happiness. Children are saved by beginning their literacy journey at the libraries. The unemployed use our computers to find jobs. The ill use our databases to find answers. The homeless use our couches to rest.

Libraries are about people.

So today, I am issuing a challenge. If you are at all civic-minded. If you care about libraries at all. If you know your senator’s number. Please make some noise. Write a blog post about why you love your city library. Write a Facebook status about why you love libraries. Post a photo on Instagram of the books you have checked out right now. Draw attention to how libraries influence your life for the better.

And then call your government representatives.

Let them know that defunding libraries is unacceptable. Let them know that libraries matter. Let them know that they don’t only matter to librarians, but to communities. To individuals who use them in a million different ways. To people who need help in a thousand different forms.

Libraries matter.

Let’s save them!