Libraries Transform

April 10 – 16 is National Library Week, and this year’s theme is “Libraries Transform“, reminding all Americans that today’s libraries are not just about what they have for people, but what they do for and with people.

Have you been to your local library lately?  They really have become amazing places.  If you’ve been to one recently, you know that’s true.  If you haven’t – you should!  And everyone, make sure you thank a librarian this week!  Our nation would be a much smaller place without our libraries, and the people who keep them going.

In honor of National Library Week, and in support of our libraries and librarians, LitStack will be running library-themes essays all week, starting with one that we first ran back in 2013.  Enjoy!

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How A Library Saved My Life

Not to be overly dramatic or anything, but I’m pretty sure that the Hosmer Library on 36th Street saved my life.  Really.

See, I have always loved books.  Cherished them.  Some of my earliest memories are of my sisters and me in our shared bedroom, listening to Mother reading bedtime stories while she sat on the wooden toy box.  Or the weekly visits to the town library where we would check out the maximum number of books allowed, then proceed to read not only our books, but each other’s as well.  And oh, the excitement of when the Scholastic flyers showed up in class, because no matter how tight money was at home we always had a few quarters to purchase a book or two; I would pour over those newsprint pages for hours, singling out which selection would be the very best.

After I left home and became independent, books were still important and I continued to read voraciously.  As soon as my husband and I bought a house, I began to fill it with books, much to his amusement.  “Why do you have to have so many books?” he would ask me.   “Because they make me feel rich,” I would reply, and that would be an honest answer.  Books were like old friends, and running my eyes over the titled spines would bring back memories as sharp and sweet as any that came from my waking world.

Once my children were born, I read to them.  I read to them before they knew what reading was.  I read to them every night, just as my mother had done with me.  Nestled into bed with me, I would fill their heads with stories.  Picture books at first (so many glorious picture books!), but then later the wealth of children’s literature:  of hobbits and benevolent lions, warrior bears, wonderland, and of course, a boy wizard with a lightning scar on his brow.

After my children outgrew bedtime stories, my work began to take me away from home more often.  The airport became a familiar haunt, and I started a tradition of picking up a new book at the bookstore just off the main tarmac at the start of each trip, to be read during the interminable waiting in transit, and at the hotel in the evenings, after the work of the day and the team dinners and late night catch up duties, in bed before turning out the lights.  What wonderful new authors came to me by chance:  Jacqueline Carey, Dan Simmons, Guy Gavriel Kay, Jim Butcher, Marie Brennan!  My bookshelves at home became packed again, and stacks began to pile in corners and on end tables.  Life was good.

Then I unexpectedly lost my job in the economic downturn of our recent recession.  At first it was not alarming, after the shock of having 50+ hours of extra time in the week wore off from not having to answer to 7 am conference calls or midnight QA sessions or any corporate beholdance in between.  I could sit on my porch and read the paper from front to back while sipping steaming black coffee.  I could finally walk the poor dog every day, and try to make a real dinner every night.  I wasn’t too worried about finding a job; I’d always been highly employable.  But the weeks and months and years went by and still no work.

I’ve come to realize the one of the greatest losses that one has to come to terms with when wrestling with “reduced circumstances” is the loss of choice.  It’s no longer “latte or cappuchino”, but “can I afford Folgers this month?”  It’s not the “do we reduce the amount we give to public TV or public radio, or just drop one or the other?” it’s having to give up both and the zoo membership, too.  And the family nights out, the spontaneous trips to Dairy Queen, the summer flowers and hanging baskets that heralded spring, the second car, the upgraded computer, cable, data plans.  No new gadgets, music cds only on birthdays, familiarity with generics, store brands, and prayers that nothing drastic would happen to car, health or home.  Life becomes simpler, and sometimes that’s good, but sometimes it’s disheartening because it cannot be escaped – not a choice but a necessity.  Yes, there was food on the table and the mortgage was still getting paid, so we had it a lot better than many others, but so many options were gone; choices had become narrow and pragmatic.

And there I was, someone who had bought books like other women buy shoes.   I didn’t go to the salon, I went to Borders.  I’d never had my nails “done” but I did have all of George RR Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” works…. well, as far as they went.  New clothes didn’t entice me, but new titles did.  Now, I couldn’t even walk into a bookstore because the temptation was too great.  A $7.99 paperback was a gateway drug to a $15.99 softcover, and soon I would be bargaining my soul for the newest Brent Weeks in hardcover.  No, I had to stand firm.  No new books unless carefully planned for and budgeted.

But the sheer volume of loss in pages to read was staggering to me.  Yes, I could re-read the books I had, and I did so, but I had gotten so familiar with so many authors who were still producing new volumes and had had such a steady diet of new works that I had grown dependent on that stimulation of my imagination; to be cut off from unknown works, especially when I had so much time at my disposal, was devastating.

Enter the Hosmer Library.  For years, I had been too busy to stop at the library that was less than a mile away from my house; besides, I had the means to obtain whatever I desired in other ways.  But now – now I needed the library like a drowning man needed a lifeline.  And a lifeline it has been.  There isn’t a week that has gone by that I don’t thank Ben Franklin, Andrew Carnegie and the powers that be that established the public library system, and built one at the corner of 36th Street and 4thth Avenue in South Minneapolis.

Have you been to public library lately?  Not only can you peruse the shelves and find myriads of worthwhile reads, but you also can get movies, music, ebooks – any kind of media.  Use a computer to link to the internet.  Browse the latest issues of a vast display of magazines and numerous newspapers.  And best of all – oh, best of all! – is the request system.  Did you like a book and want to read more by that author?  Look them up in the catalog and pick something new!  Want to be put on a waitlist for a new title coming out?  Go right ahead!  Did you read a review in the paper and decide its subject is  something you just had to experience?  Sure, request it!  In person, or online.  You want something, anything, and the library will get it for you.  They’ll send you an email when your books are in, or you can track them online if you want to know their progress, where you are in the queue if there is one.  The library system will let also warn you when your books are coming due so you can finish them up, or you can renew them online.  And it’s free!  Totally, completely, absolutely free.

Yes, I miss owning the wonderful books I’ve read, loved, and had to return.  Yes, it’s hard to need to reference something without having it on hand.  Yes, I’ve been remiss at only now recognizing the incredible resource that’s been steps away all those years and only appreciating it now.  But without my local library, I would have been bereft, adrift.  Literally.

So I vow, even if – when – my circumstances change, I won’t forget the gift I’ve been given in having such a wonderful establishment in my life, bolstering not only me, but my entire community.  Woody Allen once wrote, “You have to read to survive… Reading isn’t fun; it’s indispensable.”  So, thank you, to the Hosmer Public Library, for being indispensible.  For being there when I needed you, and even when I didn’t.  And thank you to the men and women who sustain it, for making my life tolerable.  For saving me.

~ Sharon Browning

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Diane LaGrone 12 April, 2016 - 10:48 am

As I began reading your column, I felt as though I were writing it myself. Dream job at a Tier One university…not tenure track, unfortunately. As I floundered in the days, weeks, and a couple of years, I found myself doing volunteer work, cooking, gardening. Satisfying and valuable but not what I had trained for my entire life. Then I found my next niche…a dream job that I didn’t even know existed.

All this talk about dreams and jobs and, wait, I discovered that the floundering I had done over something as trivial as a job was preparing me for an even worse loss, the worst I could have ever imagined. My daughter, age 31, died peacefully and unexpectedly in her sleep. I just thought I knew floundering.

She and I had shared books her entire life. The Velveteen Rabbit, her first favorite book. The Trixie Belden series, my own copies from years before. Sue Grafton. Yes, I still get a catch in my throat and shed tears at every new release of her alphabet. We had our own spot at the library in the town where she grew up. We had our favorite bookstores, not always the same but we sighed and indulged each other, visiting both. Then the digital age. “Mom, I don’t want to dust all those books. I have them right here in my hand.” Yes, she and I had very different ideas about the importance of housework. Then EDS, a dreadful and often fatal condition. She then had to have digital. She was weak but her kitchen was still spotless and she only spent a half second wiping clean the cover of her Kindle.

As I re-read what you wrote and what I wrote and know that today is the eve of the 2nd anniversary of her death, I realize that I needed to write this. Your column was poignant and beautiful, as always, but today it sparked a continued healing of my soul, a pain that will never heal but will always spark precious memories.

Sharon Browning 12 April, 2016 - 11:12 am

Diane, I am so touched by your reply, and your story. My heart goes out to you, with your loss and the pain that you must still be feeling so keenly. Thank you for sharing with us, and know that your words have been heard and honored.

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