Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Library

I love libraries and I especially love public libraries. You probably can’t imagine my joy when, as a child, I entered a library and was told that I could check out as many books as I wanted. I was certain that they were fools and proceeded to check out more books than I could've ever read. This habit plagues me to the day, by the way; I've more books than I could possibly read in my remaining life (and books I want to read, at that), and yet I still buy more and more books. Why is this? Some sort of addiction? Consumerism gone wrong (or possibly a self-righteous kind)?

But I digress. My love affair with libraries continued on in college where I would wander those infinite stacks looking for some book which would highlight some long unknown fact (or still the disquiet inside). I did find a few good books to read, though I'd much less success with my secondary aim of finding a female student for the much touted “intimacy in the stacks": a tradition that apparently all other students were vigorously abiding by as a study break.



I digress again. Sorry about that. Back to my love for libraries. As time forced me to be more of a coyote when dealing with books (going right to the book I want rather than being a dog and sniffing everything that piqued my curiosity), my love for libraries waned. In fact, when I moved out to the suburbs, I found myself less and less attracted to libraries. To say that the book choices were limited goes without saying, and though inter-library loans alleviated that to some extent, it meant that I could not love the library, though I may have loved libraries. For the activities that lovers do to wile away time and discover more about themselves were no longer available, no longer choices. Now our relationship was much too business-like.

Matter were made worse by the series of libraries I'd been visiting. Apparently, I'd missed when the once sacred silence and its accompanying librarian “shush” had been overthrown. Some underground revolution with its grassroots movement and spokesperson had happened without my knowing, I imagined, where the silent throne was deemed too oppressive for the people. Now libraries had become almost-boisterous areas where even the librarians joined in on the extroversions. And even though these places were noisy, they still managed to be completely devoid of life. 

Not only that, but there was a definite suburbanization with regard to the layout of the libraries themselves: they were large, expansive, open, with bright lights everywhere (to cut down on the street/stack crime, I suppose) and much too wide spaces between the desks and book shelves. All this was housed in buildings that could only be considered high ceilinged warehouses. This meant that one couldn’t escape the noises or that one couldn’t truly burrow themselves somewhere and just read or study. Confessions of an introvert? Perhaps, but I would say that many people would appreciate such abilities.

Now, I understand that this could all be more a matter of me not the libraries, but it troubled me to no end. Were there no libraries out there that could rekindle my love? Was it a matter of my passage through time?

Well, I set off to find out. But no amount of asking or clicking though galleries online revealed anything to my liking. Sure, there were plenty of churches or opera houses converted into libraries (why no prisons? These would surely be the best buildings to convert to libraries, while also helping our nation move away from its odd love affair), their gilded ceilings providing baroque backgrounds. But one look at their layouts, grand as they were, and I knew that they'd be more of the same in terms of how a human could react to its space. After all, the libraries I talked about didn’t just need some sparkling door frames or gilded ceilings (though some art placement couldn’t have hurt).

And the funny thing was, it was when I'd given up all hope, resigned myself to a subpar library (albeit with good borrowing abilities), that I stumbled upon a perfect library. Through a side door in an art gallery I saw on a country road. The side door opened to an old warehouse. One look at the arrangement and desire swept over me, right after recognition swooped me off my feet (and what’s desire but a kind of recognition?). 

The industrial shelves and the various desks and chairs were placed throughout the warehouse floor with a center for art made up of a stage (used for occasional plays or other theatrical devices) and desks and chairs. The shelves sprouted from this circle into a maze. And not just some simple maze. No, it was something like a series of oddly shaped hallways with places of rest (places to curl up with a book) located here and there, as well as ladders to get up to the next ledge, or tunnels into the ground for more lairs of books.

Now, I’m not trying to give the impression that this was some infinite labyrinth ala Borges, rather, I’m trying to point out how, with limited space and books, someone was able to make a library a beautiful thing, a place for discovery, a place to love. The lighting was perfectly variable from bright to low. Mirrors helped to provide the illusion of infinite hallways. And that was enough. Any naked wall that didn’t have a painting hanging up was open to being written on or spray painted on (the needed tools right there) by the patrons of the library. And no, it wasn’t a series of names and dates and hearts. Real art was being created.

The order of the books was also something to behold. Though I saw a few labels, some geographic, others claiming certain ailments of authors and others still. I could not truly discern any pattern and yet this did not prevent me from discovering some fantastic books. My favorite was the current event set of shelves. The Syrian Civil War, for example, had pretty much the entire history of Syria, of insurgencies, of cruelty of... well just about everything you could think about, both fiction and non-fiction. The #BlackLivesMatter shelves were even more interesting. And each would have a few librarian's recommendations listed. 

I was to find out later that the books’ possible layout was a great controversy. Some claimed it was random (as far as overall layout), while others claimed there was some link—temporal or otherwise—from one set of shelves to another. As for the current event shelves, those in themselves were controversial, though in a different way. A lot of people didn't agree that one should read Montaigne or Dante to better understand the Syrian Civil War, and so sabotage was a very real problem. Several librarians patrolled the library for this reason. The ones I saw were massive and brooked no dissension. They had a secondary effect of maintaining silence.

The most important thing was that I was in love again. The life contained in the library (there was a table with some teabags, hot water, and coffee for the taking) is indeed something to behold. The conversations here are not to be missed. And the intellectual buzz is obvious from the moment you step in and see people discovering and reading.

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