Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Libraries: from the bookmobile to the iPad

I doubt that there are many impassioned readers who do not have an equally impassioned relationship with libraries and book stores:  the places where they met books, where books on shelves seemed like limitless possibilities for ideas and lives, places where they could find the time and the atmosphere that encouraged reflection.  In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the bookmobile came to our neighbourhood, parking a mere block and a half away from the house.  There was both plenitude and minimalism inherent in a visit to the bookmobile.  Compared to the downtown library, where my mother often took me, the selection was quite limited.  Yet being there on my own meant that the choice was all mine, and it was not an overwhelming choice.  The limited number of books meant that I sometimes took home things that didn't, at first blush, seem entirely interesting, only to find that this book, of all books, was precisely the one I needed to find.  I think the first time I remember this happening was when I took out the Illustrated Classics Edition of Jane Eyre.  I'd read through all the longer kids' books like Mr Popper's PenguinsI'd cracked East of the Sun and West of the Moon many times, but never managed to climb on board.  Jane Eyre completely startled me.  I had never known the passionate expression of such feelings; this was the fifties and we didn't express anything passionately, certainly not seemingly antisocial things like rebellion and righteous indignation.  We didn't cry out for justice:  parents said over and over things like "Do as I say, not as I do"--which as far as I am concerned is still the antithesis of just.

Not long afterwards, a small shop in our neighbourhood three blocks away became a branch library.  It was soul-less:  imagine moving out a small drug store or insurance broker and bringing in shelves and shelves of books.  I simply don't have the kinds of memories of the branch library that I had of the bookmobile.  Yet I know I went there frequently.  The librarians knew my name.  I discovered Bartok and Faulkner there--reading As I Lay Dying for weeks on end, always being struck by the force of each passage, yet never figuring out how the book as a whole worked.  I lost my bicycle there.  I had ridden my bike over to fill up the basket with books, but was perhaps so enthralled with my finds that I forgot to take the bike home.  So the next time I went out to the garage to look for my bike, I could only conclude that someone had stolen it.  A week or so later, I returned the books to the library and found my bicycle still parked out in front.  It was an appalling bicycle.  The plate around the chain had been kicked and bent so that each time the right pedal passed by it, there was a long, metallic "Whoosh."  The stand had come lose so that the pedal on the left side clicked loudly each time it came around.  The large seat was cracked:  it was not advisable to ride it wearing short shorts. So it was in no danger sitting in front of the library for several weeks without a lock.  Sheepish, I put my new cache of books in the basket and rode it home.

That same bicycle later allowed me to ride to the downtown library, where I eventually inveigled my way into the Reading Room.  It was a dark room with shelves of reference books, large comfortable leather chairs, green-shaded lights, and the current newspapers.  It was largely inhabited by old men who came there to get their day's news and perhaps to give some purpose and ritual to their lives.  My excuse was probably one of those junior high school projects on the geography of Bolivia or the exports of Germany that required, in those days, exactly the kinds of reference books you found there.  Working in the Reading Room required a certain amount of stealth and a lot of quietness;  there was a librarian at a dark wooden desk who seemed to do nothing and so who seemed a kind of beadle, there to enforce appropriate behaviour.  Perhaps she was simply an early incarnation of the "reference librarian," who for me has always been embodied by U of R's inimitable Larry MacDonald, who could help you find anything.  I always tell my students that reference librarians are their best co-conspirators, turning my first impression on its head.

There have been other reading rooms that have given me the same pleasure.  Most undergraduates at the University of Michigan studied at the aptly-named UGLI, or "Undergraduate Library" (yes, it was ugly and has since been replaced) but it was known more as a place to socialize and get picked up.  Not for me.  So I worked in the reading room of the Graduate Library, loving the old, enveloping captain's chairs, the three-storey windows, the darkness that descended on the quiet cork-floored room, where long long tables had inverted troughs of light so that the only things that were illuminated at night were the materials you were reading and writing.  It effectively closed out the whole world.  

The Reading Room at the Boston Public Library was one of the few cool refuges during the hot Boston summer of 1973, though it contained no books.  On the other hand, you could find anything you wanted in the secluded reading rooms of the British Library in London, though I don't remember the chairs being as comfortable.  But like all great libraries, they managed, through the architecture and decor, through the rituals and through lighting to suggest that you have walked into an alternate universe.  

I had a particular fondness for the Current Periodicals Room on the sixth floor of the Archer Library, until the students discovered it was a good place to sleep between classes.  They would commandeer two chairs right in front of the windows that gave views of Wascana Park.  I've had some fairly anti-social fantasies in that room--imagining myself pulling a chair right out from under a sleeper and telling them they obviously weren't looking up from their reading to consider their thoughts under the influence of a landscape that encouraged long views, so the atmosphere was wasted on them.  But somehow antisocial thoughts are quickly curtailed in a library.

Given this long and sentimental history, I don't know what to make of the fact that I've fallen in love with an iPad mini that Bill gave me.  Oh, yes, it's great for keeping my life in order and for making lists.  But what I most love is the easy, easy access to the Gutenberg Project and the library I am accruing.  It has done away with the laziness and disorganization of my frequent thoughts that run something like this:  "Woolf absolutely loved Thomas Browne's Urn Burial, and I really must read it some day."  That thought never comes to me when I'm at Archer collecting books.  But now I simply walk to my iPad, link to the Gutenberg Project, and presto, it's in my own library, along with Maupassant's essays (which I should read if I'm going to pretend that 3 or 4 times a month I'm going to try to write one myself, and which Woolf also loved), and Meredith's Diana of the Crossways, along with War and Peace and James's The Ambassadors.  I find I can indulge in almost any reading whim--though I must confess that I still buy new hardcover books as they are reviewed.  

My enthusiasm for my iPad library has prompted me to think about what it is we love about libraries.  Google "beautiful libraries" and see what you come up with.  There are whole websites and books about beautiful libraries, both of which often celebrate historic buildings and massive collections housed on carved wooden shelves held up by soaring arches, inundated by light.  Perhaps what we are really celebrating is how long libraries have been valued, and how "library" and "beautiful" so often go together, and how these words have been companions over time.  The combination of those two words needn't refer to an enormous collection in an eighteenth-century building, but to a certain spirit.  When I have unpacked my books at a writers' retreat along the window sill or the back edge of my desk, I have a different, minimalist sense of the library's beauty. Perhaps part of what we imagine when we think of exploring one of the world's beautiful libraries, is time to reflect in companionship with the best minds of our culture in a setting that echoes the beauty of that act.

Virginia Woolf wrote an essay entitled "Hours in a Library," a title she borrowed from her father.  It's a strange, meandering work that explores the many ways 'hours in libraries' come about and the many moments when we seek time there. Her archetypal reader is sitting in front of a window, the way I wanted to do in the Periodicals Room in Archer Library, when she looks up and the words and pages of the book she is reading look like they are fusing, surreally, with the landscape beyond the library and the windows.  Really, I think that this is what libraries and books should do:  not simply to exist massed in protected collections, but to unwind ideas and perspectives--sometimes helpfully contradictory ideas and perspectives--through the landscapes of our daily lives. If my iPad gives me better access to the books I've always thought I should read, why not see it as the new library?  

The "beautiful libraries" somehow combine the "best that has been thought and said," in the words of Matthew Arnold--all those various minds coming at life from different time frames and different perspectives and identities--with beauty and comfort. Really, libraries shouldn't be places of comfort:  they are there to challenge us all.  But perhaps we need the illusion of comfort in order to settle into, give credence to, converse with, all those voices who have been willing to work very hard to speak to us, to continue speaking to us.  So what if it isn't Wren's library at Trinity College, but my bedroom with my iPad?  At least there I can have tea and a cat--necessary and comforting companions for the wild adventure I am about to undertake.


  1. I have fiercely fond memories of the blue plush window seats at the Chilliwack Public Library, where I discovered Ursula K. Leguin, Lloyd Alexander, and Madeleine L'Engle. I also remember trying to browse the children's section years later with a friend, and being told by the library staff that we were "too old to be here." The only time I've ever been disappointed by a librarian. I like the hiss of the wind that you can hear on the periodical floor of the Archer Library, though I agree that this floor--and most of the library now--has been commandeered by students either asleep or checking their email. The British Library has the greatest smell in the world. I fought buying an e-reader for a long time, but now I quite like my Kindle (though it's already been obsolete for several years). It's particularly useful if I want to find books written in languages other than English, or texts that are now public-domain. It's a real boon when I'm flying somewhere, and need to make space in my suitcase to bring more print books home.

  2. I recall the bookmobile that visited our neighbourhood in Regina when I was a child. It was wonderful to be able to ride my bicycle there or trudge through the snow by myself on a Saturday to select my own books. We also got to go to the downtown library occasionally. Today I live in small town Saskatchewan where the library is about the size of two bookmobiles, but our librarians have made it a vibrant place. Through staff changes, there are still games of crib, puzzle making and not the least, a fine selection of books making their rounds. While the librarian endeavours to bring in both fiction and non-fiction that catch the eye, I have to say I appreciate the ability to browse the library on my computer and through the Saskatchewan library system, order whatever I fancy. Surely this is a 'beautiful' library. I don't use my computer for reading as much as I might. Perhaps this will change as I change.

  3. Thank you both, Jes and Carla, for these wonderful memories. Carla, my daughter works for the Saskatchewan Information and Library Services Consortium; they're trying to make it easy for you to get anything from the province's many libraries easily.