By Paul J. Schafer
The Pew Research Center reported that nearly a quarter of American adults had not read a single book in the past year: not opening a paperback, firing up an E-Reader, or even push the play button for an audiobook while in the car. Are books and libraries becoming obsolete?
Growing up near Pittsburgh, I remember weekly trips to the Oakmont Public Library. The façade of that library was impressive, resembling a small castle with its manicured lawn, its steep entrance staircase, and its massive oak doors. To a young boy, the library seemed like a giant maze with rows and rows of books, long tables with green-shaded bolted lamps, and mysterious cubicles scattered throughout the library. There were also glass cases filled with historical objects, wildlife scenes, and science displays. These items, along with the large posters depicting Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows, the fish tanks, and the terrariums created a magical experience.
Wondering what experiences others have had with libraries led me to place a blurb in The Book Review section of The New York Times asking readers to share their early recollections of libraries. People from around the country and a few from other countries sent me more than 200 letters. Many of the letters are emotional, tender and poignant.
The letters illustrate how libraries and librarians have influenced the lives of the writers. Although each letter is unique, a common theme is libraries acting as a sanctuary, a gateway, and a place for transition. Libraries provided the writers with a warm, welcoming place; a kindly guide to the future; and a safe passage to a positive sense of self. Though the letters contain all sorts of reflections, ranging from loving memories to intimidating images, three topics are prominent: (1) the importance of books, (2) the warmth and kindness of librarians, and (3) the memorable impressions of the physical appearances of libraries. Several writers conflate all three topics. The writers stress the importance of books in their lives, the compassion and helpfulness of the librarians, and the contrast between the imposing, cold, and sometimes intimidating façades of the libraries with the warm, inviting spaces inside.
The role that books played in the lives of many letter writers is illustrated by the president of a company who writes, “There is no doubt in my mind that my romance with the children’s library helped to develop my imagination and creativity, as well as my sense of optimism.” Similarly, after confessing to stealing a library book 60 years ago, a child psychoanalyst says that he often arrived at the library before the librarian and states that books “were my first recognition of any world outside of my own immediate one.”
Another prevalent theme in the letters is the role of librarians. A great grandmother writes, “Although I am Jewish, one of my warmest memories, both figuratively and literally was sitting around the fireplace and being read to around Christmas time at the Brooklyn Public Library.” An 82 year old woman comments about her librarian, “Her kindness and care were palpable. Coming from a household where my mother preferred my father’s belt to a gentle word, the librarian not only gave me a wonderful introduction to the library, but she represented to me that the world of books creates kind people; people who ask and discuss before they hit; people who will look you in the eye before they will strike to keep you low.”
The physical aspects of libraries are also mentioned by many writers. A writer and an editor remembers the time at the Brownsville Children’s Library when she could finally enter the adult section, “Getting the card that let you go upstairs and borrow books from that collection was as significant a rite of passage for us as any formal ceremony.” A Swedish immigrant tells of “a glass display case containing beautifully designed mythical landscapes with characters like mice and rabbits. I clearly recall a sensation of magic descending upon me.” Years later she returns to the library to discover, “the glass cases appeared small and shabby. I wondered what there had been to marvel at. The ‘mystery room’ seemed crowded and irritatingly dark, but many years later, as an adult, the magic is still there in my memory, to conjure up at will. Long live the creators of children’s libraries and the magic they instill in our hearts.”
Let’s hope that Universities in Florida will always have libraries with books to help children discover dinosaurs, terrariums and exhibits to fire their imaginations, and compassionate librarians to inspire them.
Paul J. Schafer
The views and opinions expressed in this document are solely those of the contributing author. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Keiser University and/or the Keiser University student body and staff.