Lifestyle & Culture

Love Letters to the Library

August 15, 2019

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LITTLEBIRDS Janet and Nancy are both of a bookish bent. We enjoy many of the same works, though it’s possible that Janet doesn’t find Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series as hilariously entertaining as Nancy does. There are other ways we part company: Read on!

Last weekend, I had a glorious time with friends talking about old times, new adventures—and books we were reading or intended to. When one friend asked, more rhetorically than anything, “Who goes to the library anymore?” I was the loner among us who said, “I do.” Which got me to thinking about why—at least in my own head—I was defending that choice.

My first memory of going to the library was in elementary school. All I wanted to read was Nancy Drew books or anything by young adult novelist Rosamund du Jardin. I remember our patient hometown librarian, who tried to persuade me to expand my literature choices beyond girl-detective and romance stories.

Much later on there was the college library, where admittedly I went only when I needed to write a paper or seriously study. More often, it was because I hoped to run into a guy I liked whom I knew hung out there.

While working in NYC and later in DC, I rarely visited the library, preferring bookstores in the days of Borders. At The Washington Post, I was spoiled by the slush pile of the paper’s Book Review section, where most every week you could find a gem or two. But about 10 years ago, a comment from a colleague who said she preferred to go the library rather than buy books —hardbacks and even paperbacks were getting expensive—struck a chord. I got into the habit of going to one—first in Potomac, Maryland, and then in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of DC.

One of the first things I did when I moved to Pittsburgh while staying in temporary living quarters was get a library card at the main Carnegie Library in Oakland. It’s an impressive, massive place where you can settle into an ornate reading room, get lost in the never-ending stacks, attend a book club, borrow a musical instrument, learn a language, see an exhibit or sip a latte.

More convenient, though, is my neighborhood branch, a five-minute drive from where I eventually settled. I felt disconnected and lonely when I moved—everything was foreign. Staking out the library as familiar territory helped.

Although I only interact superficially with the staff there, I feel part of a community when I see them there most every week. There’s the tall, young guy behind the desk, who I don’t think can count very well. Whenever I bring in a book that’s well overdue, he invariably says, “That will be 30 cents” or “You don’t owe anything.” I don’t argue but I know he must be wrong because when I return an overdue book to the young woman with curly hair of multiple colors, it’s always about three times as much. I occasionally chat with her about whether she has read something I’m reading. I think, or hope, she likes her job because she never fails to smile while taking my returns and checking out my new ones. Times being what they are, there’s a security guard at the entrance.  I’m not sure whether he recognizes me or not, but he always says hello, as if he does.

Another reason I love the library: for the hope of unexpected treasures you may find by just roaming around the stacks.

Sure, it’s easier and faster to download books to an electronic device, but instead of interacting with other people, it isolates us from them, locking us in our own little bubble. Libraries bring joy to so many people, including me. And I go often because I want to do whatever I can to ensure their continued existence.

—Janet Kelly


I love the library too, but I like to keep my distance. Part of that is because I get overwhelmed easily, just as I do in bookstores, which is why I keep away from those as well. Another part is because I’m just not very organized: If my neighborhood library closes at 5, I’ll decide I need something to read at about 5:15. Or 1 in the morning.

All of those factors send me to the library’s website where, the book gods willing, I’ll find something to download or at least place on hold. (I’m frequently met with disappointment, but this exercise saves me from Amazon, whose instant download of everything is far too tempting.)

I must once have thought that having shelves filled with books added “warmth” to my living room. Now I wonder if I was trying to prove something (that I can read?) or just set a proper “tone.”

Having just moved 35 linear feet of books from DC to NYC (that’s after donating hundreds of tomes to libraries and any charity book sale that would take them), I view their spines with terror. I think they procreate at night when I’m not watching, spreading across surfaces where dinner dishes and cocktail napkins and little bronze sculptures are supposed to sit. The fact that my new apartment doesn’t have 35 linear feet of bookshelves only adds to my distress.

I once enjoyed roaming bookstores and library stacks. At least the books I picked up from the latter went back to their shelf again; what I picked up from the former is why I still have all these books to shelve and dust. Another hazard, as Janet points out, was the book cart at The Washington Post. There was no end to the fascinating things to be found there every week. I know, because some of them are still with me, unread but still alluring.

As I was unpacking my boxes of books this week I felt a mix of feelings: oppression from their collective bulk and a sort of joy—books that I haven’t read yet even though I’ve had them for years still pique my interest. They could keep me away from the library for a very long time!

I like Janet’s idea of reinforcing community by frequenting the local branch, but I now have dozens of friendly neighbors in my co-op building and more at the various dog parks I’m learning about.

I’ll probably ask all those people what to download next, just to keep myself from being overwhelmed.

Like Janet, I really want libraries to thrive. Last week I donated to the restoration of Patience and Fortitude, the two lions that guard the main 42nd Street New York Public Library. Getting the statues all gussied up won’t save the library, but paying for their maintenance may release more money for books that I can borrow—only I hope they’ll be electronic and available to me at 1 in the morning.

—Nancy McKeon




3 thoughts on “Love Letters to the Library

  1. Alexa Mergen says:

    The White Pine County library in rural Ely, Nevada has been a lifeline for me the two years I’ve lived here. The stacks have scant new books—especially fiction—but Cindy the librarian will order books from anywhere in the state system for me. And I get a personal phone call when they come in on the mail truck. The ephemerality of borrowing a book, not owning it, appeals to me, that the book appears (like the proverbial teacher for the student) when the reader is ready. That said, I have dreamed of being in the presence of all the books I’ve ever read. Like in a flock of birds. Absorbing the energy, wonder and joy.

  2. Molly Schnabel says:

    Ah the library, the lovely lovely library! I would not have a modicum of intelligence if it weren’t for the library. When we moved from Pittsburgh to Appalachian Kentucky, the only connection we had with education was through a library donated by Andrew Carnegie himself. I was 11 and a bit differently than Janet, my mother got a call when I tried to take out a Jane Austen book. That library led to many others where I would hide in the stacks during study hall and where I learned to love Hardy and Bronte as well as Bradbury and Rodenberry . As I learned genealogy, I found many hidden facts in the library along with maps. Then I moved to a town in Massachusetts where I found another Carnegie Library over which there had been a move by the community to not accept it due to his dislike of libraries. I am now what is classified as “a Friend” of the library. At one point Town Meeting was going to vote down funding for the library and I considered moving. I never go to the library without finding something new that makes me want to stay until closing time. And, I am happy to declare that my grandchildren honor their cards as much as I do mine. Thanks for your article.

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      Libraries are magical places. Glad you liked the post and thank you for your eloquent response.

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