A few weeks ago I attempted my first solo trip to the library with all three of our little boys. The library is walkable from our house at the edge of the borough, and since I don’t generally plan outings with the same attention to detail as my wife, I strapped the baby into a carrier, loaded the other two into a double-wide stroller, and decided we were good to go. The first three minutes of the walk were very pleasant — we noted the setting sun, talked about the books we hoped to find, hummed bits and pieces of Christmas tunes. It was all very nice. Then the boys asked for snacks. I only had one granola bar, which I had snagged on my way out the door mostly so the dog wouldn’t find it and eat the wrapper. Through some artful negotiating, we agreed to save the snack for after the library, but then they wanted water. There would be probably be water at the library, I told them.
“What about the book bag?”, they asked.
Of course we didn’t have the book bag. I could picture it in my head — a reusable shopping bag my wife always brings because when you think for more than ten seconds about a trip to the library, you remember you’ll need a place to put all the books.
The walk continued like that for another ten minutes — them asking questions and me dodging them like an embattled politician at a news conference. When it was finally in view, the Phoenixville Public Library looked to me like a glowing beacon of hope rising up from the bustling corner of Reeves Park. We shuffled in, a blast of warmth hitting us as we pulled open the glass door. The kids’ section is at the bottom of a staircase, nestled deep in the belly of the building. By the time we got to the bottom of the stairs, everyone was quiet. The boys had forgotten all about being hungry and thirsty, and I’d forgotten all about being annoyed that I didn’t plan better. Even the baby had a renewed sense of calm. There was just something about being in that space that settled us.
December is arguably the busiest and most emotionally complex time of the year, so I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on those quiet, unassuming buildings on street corners around the country. The library can mean different things to different people, but a few specific comparisons come to mind as I consider the library in this lovely albeit chaotic month.
In a recent interview on The Daily, librarian Martha Hickson described her school library as a refuge. That word really resonates with me because it’s true on so many levels. The library can be a physical refuge — a public and safe space to go when it’s cold or dark or dangerous outside. But it’s not just a building. The library is a refuge for ideas — silly ideas and bold ideas and sometimes contentious ideas. In her interview, Martha discussed her battle to keep controversial books on the shelves at her library, and regardless of my personal opinions about specific books or their content, I really cherish the notion that the library is a refuge even for ideas that fall outside the comfortable and familiar. To that end, Martha helped developed a website designed to support other librarians facing similar challenges, and the way the literary community has circled the wagons really speaks to the importance of libraries as safe spaces.
A Swiss Army Knife
When I was a kid, I really wanted a Swiss Army Knife. I’m not sure why – I wasn’t especially outdoorsy. For most of my adolescent years, I couldn’t even open a can of soup without parental intervention. I think I just loved the idea of something serving so many different functions. In a lot of places, libraries are the Swiss Army Knives of the community. They serve as polling places, event centers, computer labs, and classrooms. Contrary to popular belief, most librarians will even tolerate quiet conversations between friends. The library is home to endless forms of community engagement, and its influence is like soft music playing in the background — a comforting, steady rhythm that settles the soul.
A French Chalet
December is a very commercial time of year. At our house, we don’t get much regular mail these days. It’s mostly ads for Black Friday sales and post-black Friday sales and double-bonus sales events just in case you missed the first bonus sales event. Libraries don’t have much to sell. I think that’s another reason I find them so refreshing. As a middle school teacher and parent of young kids, I’ve gone to my share of school book fairs this season, and while no one loves shopping for books more than I do, there is something jarring about the way books are advertised in those settings. It feels a little like Vegas for book nerds — super fun but slightly overwhelming. Going to the library is like visiting a French Chalet. I’ve never been in one, but I’ve heard they’re very cozy.
A Thick Blanket
Of course no refuge is perfect. At the end of our library visit, my two year-old tripped over a train table and hurt his arm, and my five year-old nearly had a meltdown when I told him he couldn’t check out all twenty-three Berenstain Bears books at the same time. Still, the gentle music played and a million ideas from a million books swirled around and covered us like a thick blanket. We walked home mostly in silence, warmed by the thought of the dozen or so books wedged under the stroller. We’d found a brief respite from the business of the season, and I hope you do, too. Whether you go to the library every day or haven’t been there in years, I promise it’s waiting like an old friend.
Just don’t forget a bag.