On Libraries

During World War II in the neighborhood where I lived, a small lending library of current fiction and non-fiction books was maintained in a nearby home. Anyone could pay a modest fee to borrow a book for a week or so, making it unnecessary to purchase a copy or wait until one became available at the distant public library. It wasn’t so easy to buy books during those wartime years so the little lending library around the block became a popular and much appreciated neighborhood center. Whatever happened to those small private lending libraries? I suspect they have all but vanished from this country.

About the time I entered Junior High, I began to study at the nearby library in my hometown. It was a small library located in the City Hall of what was then a village, albeit no less fashionable than now. The library was not far from my home and eventually I began biking or taking the bus there several times a week. It was quiet. The tables were hidden from one another in between the open stacks that filled the rooms. The books that I needed then were readily available. But mostly I would go to study and read. It was more than enough to simply be amongst those books for an hour or two in the afternoon.

I recall an older man was always there when I arrived. Now that I think about it, he must have been about the same age as I am now. Perhaps he was a writer for he was always scribbling something on a pad of yellow paper. I suspect I was rather impressed by his devotion to writing and seriousness of intent. Strangely, after all of these years, I’ve not forgotten him or that strange blend of paper, leather, and dust that I inhaled each time I stepped foot in the little library in my hometown.

In his blog (10/16/14), Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp describes a somewhat similar experience, updated for modern times. Every weekday in my university library I see a diminutive elderly man seated in front of a computer near the main reference desk. He wears an olive-drab bucket cap with the cord fastened below his chin and a sweater with holes at the elbows. His nose is inches from the screen, against which he holds a pocket magnifying glass. Beside him is a pile of books and papers. His gaze is intent.

Since the days of my youth, I have been to many fine libraries: Widener, Bodleian, the libraries at Stanford and Berkeley. I am overwhelmed with gratitude each time I step foot in one of those places. The first time I wandered in to the great reading room of the New York Public Library I had to stop and catch my breath.

Before me were row after row of tables with hundreds of readers peering at their books. I walked down one of the long aisles lined with book shelves glimpsing the titles of reference books most of which I didn’t even know existed, crossed over to the other side with a comparable collection that I would love to be able to get my hands on. It was hard to leave. While I usually work alone, after being in that room, I realized for perhaps the first time that I could actually read and write in the reading room of the New York Public Library and that if I lived in New York, I would probably go there every day.

And yet, as rich as are the resources of the New York Public Library and other comparable collections, the little library in the City Hall of my hometown, like any first love, will always remain my favorite. It is where I would want to be when it comes time to read my last book. I am sure the card catalog will still be there. After all, the librarians would never think of abandoning it for something as racy as a computer.

Is anyone going to the library now? To find out I went over to the Portland State University library the other day. I walked in the main entry and was immediately confronted by a room full of computers, with a student working at each console and a long line of other students waiting for an opening.

I counted about 50 workstations and as I walked up and down row upon row of them, I failed to see a single person reading a book. Some were taking notes from a website, others were writing text, while still others were composing e-mails. I went upstairs and observed much the same at about a dozen round tables each with five radiating computer stations, fully occupied with students peering at the screen.

As far as I could tell, not one was reading from a book. Where were the books, anyway? What a barren place I thought. Off to the side there were a few scattered readers. Most of them were taking notes from textbooks not anything from the library collection. However, I did see a fair number of students listening to their iPods and talking on their cell phones.

Up to the third, fourth and fifth floor with progressively fewer students but almost without exception each one working away on their laptops. These floors were largely devoted to the library’s open stacks, aisle after aisle of book shelves crammed full of books, journals, and monographs. I walked down the central aisle of each floor, glancing to my left and then to my right and I did not see a single individual browsing through these books.

I did see a few library personal returning books to the shelves. That was reassuring. And there were a small number of students reading at the largely empty tables on the perimeter of each floor, but not one by a pile of books that they had collected from the stacks or checked out from the library. So many books, so many unopened, untouched books, so few, if any, readers, year after year.