I have always loved libraries. Even as a kid, and not a voracious or fast reader, I loved to walk through the heavy doors of our local library, Emmet O’Neal in Mt. Brook, AL, and wander through the hushed silence of stacks, to run my hands along the spines of books, to dig through the card catalogue and find exactly what I was searching for. It was like a church but way more fun.
We’d go there after school to do homework or pop in on the weekend to drop off or pick up new reads. The library was a vast sea of reading, of information tucked into countless pages, hidden within covers of thousands of books and magazines that called the library home. The stacks were long and poorly-lit then, and the books piled so high I often had to stand on a little foot stool provided so shorter visitors could access things up high. The smell of all of those pages of print and leather-bound volumes is indescribable. A mix of wood and dust and sweat and thousands of oily, sticky fingers. It was a magical feeling to stand amidst the stacks and stare at the names and titles imprinted on all of those books’ spines. So many books, so little time.
Every summer my sister and I would sign up for the reading program, an inventive librarian tool to motivate kids to read more. We’d place our name tag on the reading board and for every book we finished, we’d move our name to another section. I felt so proud to return my newly read books and advance my name on the big board. A grand prize, like a bookmark, awaited those who read a certain number of texts over the course of the summer. My sister was always far ahead of me. She was a fast reader, a smart reader and she could lose herself in books in a way I could not. I was too easily tempted by sunshine, the call of friends outdoors or the shiny purple seat of my bike with handle-bar streamers.
But that library, those summer programs, and the feeling I got when I was in that space created in me a love for books, for holding a novel in my hands and turning the page to continue the story. I am grateful for that library and my access to its treasures.
Now I wonder about reading, about the future of our library system. Today people opt for Kindles or audio books, which is fine, but for me these methods detract from the experience of reading. For me, the act of going to the library, browsing the shelves, cradling a book that can go with me anywhere I chose for 3 weeks, is like none other. To listen to someone read is fine; to have instant access to a text via electronic print and to read off a screen is fine, too. But not for me. If a library is a wee bit like a church (quiet, communal, welcoming, a storehouse of information and emotion and experience) then the act of visiting it and checking out a book I will bring into my own space is one of reverence in a way. A good book shares with me its secrets, allows me to access another person’s way of seeing and making sense of the world. It allows me to escape me for a bit and to be in an alternate world of another’s creation.
My neighborhood library now is only blocks from my home. Walkable, It’s a sweet small space and welcoming to the public. However, its hours are constantly being altered or cut, its holdings are limited, and when I visit, I find most people on the computers rather than digging through the stacks. That’s alright; at least people are there and using the space, valuing the public system.
This week my branch will host a new program for kids. Not a reading tree or competition based on volume but a wonderful, encouraging idea nonetheless. The library now invites mellow and trained dogs to come to reading day and children who are reluctant or poor readers can share their experience with a kind and steady listener, a dog. Paws For Reading allows children the opportunity to engage with a book, to read aloud and enjoy the world a good story can create while being in the peaceful and supportive presence of a canine friend.
I wish this program has been in place when I was a child. As much as I loved a good visit to Emmet O’Neal, I would have been there far more frequently if dogs had been part of the program. I think anything that encourages imagination, reading, a love of books and the library is a healthy and positive behavior to pass on to our kids. I know how much the library influenced me, and every time I lose myself in a book, whether for pleasure or to study, I am thankful for my positive introduction to the world of reading and the free library system.