I nearly started to cry in the library today. Inside the fiction stacks I began to feel the familiar pressure build in my chest and I blinked rapidly, not wanting to lose the dignity that I cling to so obsessively. It was all too much.
The heaters and humidifiers hummed as they worked to keep the temperature stable. Behind the ajar door marked “Interlibrary Loans- Staff Only” came the sound of heavy, thick piles of books being moved from wooden tables to metal carts. Newspapers rustled and computer keyboards, muffled by the rows of shelves that separated me from them, clicked. Occasionally there was a faint laugh and more frequently someone coughed. Winter coats made the sound that only synthetic waterproof fabric can make, a scratching sound that I cannot stand.
This library-induced need to cry isn’t an isolated case. I’ve been in libraries before. Some not as beautiful as this and some more elaborate than this. Larger and smaller libraries. Louder and quieter libraries. All, at one time or another, have brought me close to tears. When my mood becomes unstable it’s easier for me to become swept up in the quiet tragedy of the library. My mind becomes obsessed with reports of dwindling numbers of patrons; of famous authors calling their local library “obsolete” and calling for them to close; of memories centered around searching through the physical card catalogue, memories that can no longer be lived. It’s all I can do not to tear books off of their shelves to see the last time they were checked out. Of course the black ink dates stamped in the back will be out of date as the modern library uses scanners and e-mails now.
Do not think of me as a regressive librarian who is grumbling at newfangled changes. I enjoy how online catalogs and barcodes make my trips to the library run more smoothly. What I miss is the tactile sensation of flipping through well worn index cards to find the book I want. (Or do I miss my childhood which is to always be associated with standing on tip-toes to reach the upper drawers of the card catalog?) I don’t get angry at people who only come to the library to use the computer and have never checked out a book. I believe that providing internet access to the local communities is one of the most important responsibilities of a library and that this responsibility falls well within my ideas of what a library is. It’s not the modern library that makes me want to cry, it’s the chemicals in my brain forcing me to focus exclusively on the sadder aspects of life that makes me want to cry.
Standing in the stacks I find it all too much. The books around me become large, no, they’re always larger than their physical presence. Books are the size of their authors, of their history, of their readers, of their story and right now they’re too big. It’s not that they’ve grown but rather that at this moment I’m shrinking. There’s not enough room for me in this world. Ideas I harbor of writing, of becoming a librarian are instantly dismissed as utterly stupid. How could I ever think that I could become involved with this world? I’m not a mortal who looks to Olympus, I’m in the Asphodel Meadow and longing to be alive (longing for life must be stronger than the river Lethe.)
This shell of unneeded tragedy cracks as I touch a book’s spine. If this was a fairytale this moment when the pad of my finger touches the plastic cover would be the moment when Spring returns to the kingdom, when my family awakes, when my true love transforms from crow to Prince. This is not a fairytale and this is the moment when I realize that I need to go to the B’s. I’m in the G’s, only two rows away from where I need to go. It’s the Brontes that I want. Their stories will pair well with the winds and grey sky outside of this stone library. More importantly they’ll connect me to a world I can relate to.
There are no books by the Brontes. I’m so shocked that I check the shelves twice more, touching every book from “Bo” to “Ca” just to make certain that my eyes aren’t lost. The online catalog informs me that the Brontes are located in the lower level in the 800s. The shame I feel at needing this computer to tell me where to go is unbearable. I should have known that 19th century literature wouldn’t be located in the fiction stacks, I’m not your average library patron. Mortified I walk down the stairs. Here the shelves are metal and some have large posters from the 90’s that offer simple breakdowns of the Dewey Decimal Code. I dawdle in front of them, slowing down my pace to touch each laminated poster and feel the return of library classes from many years ago. In fact I suspect that this yellow poster with white lettering is identical to one used in my school library, or close enough to make me feel nostalgic for my early days in libraries. Those were the days when I believed that librarians could be dragons, that swords could fall out of books, that Dewey’s order was the thin line that separated us from anarchy. I still believe these things but they’re less literal and more metaphoric now.
In the 800’s I make a point of looking at every book. I suspect that these titles don’t get the attention that they were once used to and I feel guilty that I don’t visit more often. Chaucer, Hardy, Eliot and their compatriots are interspersed by biographies of these authors.
The Brontes no longer seem so important to me. I look over their titles, consider re-reading Wuthering Heights and then inspect Jane Austen. Maybe Doyle? No, too modern. I pick up Cranford. It’s a title that I’m familiar with only in the sense that I know of references to the town it takes place in. The first page is intriguing (a town in the early 1800’s that’s run by Amazons?) and soon I’m smiling, not just at Elizabeth Gaskell’s humor but at the similarities I feel between this town and my rural home.
With Cranford in hand I head upstairs. I’m not ready to leave the library and I go to the third floor for no other reason other than the sign that says “Special Collections/Robert Frost/Emily Dickinson/Third Floor.” The door to the special collections is closed. I think I could just push it open and go in but I suddenly can’t face Frost, so unhappy at Amherst, or Dickinson, too emotional for this moment. Fingers dragging along the polished railing I go back downstairs.
I’m a Yankee and uncomfortable with displays of emotion in public. Hell, I’m uncomfortable with displays of emotion even when I’m completely alone. That’s why I need libraries, that’s why I need Elizabeth Gaskell. This visit has taken me through emotions that I repress. In the presence of Virginia Woolf and Junot Diaz and Piers Anthony I admit to anxieties and fears that I regularly refuse to admit to myself. Libraries are the repository of the human experience, of the full range of our emotions, of the Marquis de Sade and Danielle Steel. They are the closest I’ll ever come to so many parts of life as they collect the sum of our existence into something accessible. In libraries I find prayer, salvation, hope and Cranford.