Dear Libraries…

We didn’t have a bookshop in the town where I grew up. We did have a public library, though, on the top floor of the Civic Hall; accessible by a mysterious staircase that got narrower and narrower, changing from marble to dark wood as you moved upwards.
I first went there when I was seven years old. I remember the scent of dust and old books; the cavernous galleries of shelves; the reverent silence, like in a church, and the woman who sat at the front desk and watched me with the suspicious eye of someone who knew I was up to no good.
I went in every week and borrowed a book from the children’s shelves, until I’d read all the books in the children’s section
The adult library was out-of-bounds. The children’s library was very small, and with my single pink library card, I could only borrow one book a week. I went in every week after that and borrowed a book from the children’s shelves, until I’d read all the books in the children’s section. Then the librarian, with some reluctance, accepted to give me a blue card – a pass into those galleries of dusty, enticing adult books – as long as she checked the book I chose and declared it suitable. If she felt that my choice was inappropriate, then I had no book that week – which meant that my visits to the library were all the more thrilling for the element of risk they contained.
I lived for those library visits. I would spend hours, sitting on the floor, reading behind the bookshelves. While I was there, I read all the books that I knew the librarian would think unsuitable. Then I would take home the largest book I could find (I judged merit by length in those days) hoping it would last the week. It rarely did. In the library I discovered books on mythology; fairy tales; books on history; books on space. I realized that every book was a world, every shelf a solar system. I realized that, through books, I could go wherever I wanted to go; be whoever I wanted to be.
Later, they closed the library and opened another one in town, a bright and cheery civic space, where I could do my homework, meet my friends, watch boys, borrow records and even paintings, and best of all, where I could get out as many books as I liked, and from any section. I used to meet my boyfriend there; we did our homework together. I did my first book reading there (in front of 35 people, mostly friends of my mother’s). Now that library, too, has closed, to be replaced by another new building, staffed by community volunteers. We’re told this will be an improvement. I wonder – but I hope it’s true.
And yet I still remember that first, old, dusty, old-fashioned library with its eternal smell of damp. Perhaps because it was my first; or perhaps because that’s where I learned that a library isn’t just a space, or even a collection of books. It’s a nexus of possibilities, both social and intellectual. And that’s why I feel so passionately that we should value our libraries – not just because they bring communities together; or because they provide children with a safe place to study; or give the elderly somewhere to meet; or even because they give poor people the same chance as wealthy people to discover themselves through reading – but because you never know what you’ll find in a library; just as you’ll never know what you missed if we let the libraries go.
Dear library; thank you for being there at the time I needed you most. Thank you for the doors you opened; the worlds you helped me discover. Without you, I wouldn’t be quite who I am. You are a part of me, as now I am a part of you. Together, let’s keep those doors open. You never know who might come in…