A delightful society

The British Library welcomes me to London, December 2005

The British Library welcomes me to London, December 2005

“Books are delightful society.  If you go into a room and find it full of books – even without taking them from the shelves they seem to speak to you, to bid you welcome.”  ―    William Ewart Gladstone

From the most magnificent libraries to the humblest bookshelves, I feel at home wherever there are books.  I guess that’s why I eventually earned my Master of Library and Information Studies at the University of Hawaii (1994-1996).  But long before I had a graduate degree in library science, I haunted the stacks of every library I could find, and still have about a dozen active library cards to various libraries.  Wherever I go, I seek out and visit the public libraries, each unique but all with the enduring appeal that comes from housing infinite possibilities for exploration and discovery.

Through books, I connect to other people from worlds vastly different from my own, experiencing the timeless bond that comes from the sharing of ideas, stories and viewpoints.  While the internet now offers similar opportunities for connection, for me there will never be anything quite like the comfortable yet exciting “click” of recognition I sense whenever I walk through a library door: I belong.

This post was originally published seven years ago today. You can view the original with comments here.

10 Comments

  1. Judy from Pennsylvania

    I grew up loving the adventure of going to a library to browse the stacks and find another fascinating book. The libraries had a special scent that must have come from all the old paper and inks and wooden shelves, and the quietness of the large rooms made them a place of reverence. Thumbing through the paper card catalogues was another part of the enjoyment. It was a unique experience and a place of refuge during a childhood of constant family turmoil.

    Several years ago I got the idea that it would be fun to experience the libraries at Harvard, Yale and Princeton just to see what they were like. My husband and I made each visit a vacation and it took 3 years to visit all of them. That was at a time when you could just walk in without ID. I was awed to be in those impressive buildings that housed books containing of the greatest knowledge in the world.

    I don’t go to libraries very much anymore. My laptop takes me on endless explorations through rabbit holes of information and entertainment. It’s like having a library at my fingertips. But the physical part of enjoying the experiences is missing. No walking around, no unique place of lovely silence and smells.

    The digital world of writings and books is wonderful but it has taken me away from all those dear hours in libraries. I still love books though and would rather read a real book than a digital one. So I browse antique stores and Amazon to get my books. Antique stores with book sections smell like and almost feel like the old libraries of my youth. And sometimes I actually go to the local library, but not very often.

    • Judy, your description of the physical aspects of libraries in your childhood exactly matches my memories– especially the scent of books and library paste and other unique but hard-to-pinpoint smells. I remember these same delights about my school library, where our weekly class visits were always the high point of my week. Our public library, as it was in those days, would seem unappealing by today’s standards, but it was still one of my favorite places on earth and I think the aroma of the place was one of the most distinctive pleasures.

      What fun it must have been to see those university libraries! The library school at University of Hawaii, where I got my MLIS, was located in the basement of the main library at the Manoa campus. I came to love that HUGE library dearly, and also the smaller ones, especially the one that housed the technology and multimedia collections.

      I was sorry to learn that you don’t go to libraries much anymore, simply because you must miss it on some level. As you suggest, modern libraries are far different from what we remember from childhood, but they do have treasures all their own. If you come to see me while I still have the York home, I’ll take you to what is perhaps my favorite library of all (at least in recent years), the Poquoson Public Library, which is actually closer to me than the York County library (though both are less than 3 miles away). The Poquoson Library is a small but perfect place, with a strong user-centered orientation and a delightful ambience. To be honest, that little library is one of the biggest reasons I can’t yet bring myself to part with the York home. Of course, I love most every library I enter, so I try to visit local libraries in other places whenever I can while traveling.

      One of my more far-fetched fantasies is to own a bookshop that tries to re-create the library atmosphere we remember, along with a decor that just shouts “cozy” — fireplaces (as at the libraries we saw in Maine), wooden bookcases, traditional art and comfy upholstered furniture. Coffee and tea brewing on small tables among the seating areas, not sequestered in a commercial shop area off to the side. Colorful rugs and floor cushions in the children’s section, as I furnished the children’s room of the public library in California where I worked, with kids and books scattered all over the floor. And prices so low that it wouldn’t matter if anything got damaged or “borrowed” by patrons. Needless to say, the object would NOT be to make money! 🙂 Come to think of it, sort of a hybrid of a library and a bookstore. Maybe more of a private library than a shop. I told you it was far fetched. 😀

      • Judy from Pennsylvania

        Julia, your idea for a bookshop sounds wonderful! Maybe a combination of a public tea room and used book store furnished like you described it? What fun! I know lots of places with old books for sale, and there are a few tea rooms popping up here and there, but I haven’t come across any that combined the two. You might be onto something special!

        The library near your York home must be like an old friend. Some libraries are like that. Several years ago I visited the one in the small Indiana town where I used to live with my grandparents when I was a young girl. I loved that library so much. Amazingly, it hadn’t changed a whole lot. It had the same comforting old smells to it too. It was heavenly to go back there, even if it was just for a little while.

        I hope you get to go back to Hawaii someday and see the libraries there again. Maybe I’ll be able to go with you to the one in York. I’d love to see it.

        • Judy, just let me know when you are headed this way. With enough advance notice, I can make almost anything work. Or so I tell myself. 🙂

  2. Susan

    Oh, libraries! I vividly remember the libraries of my childhood. I occasionally still have dreams that take place in the library of the school I went to for fourth through six grades. Our church, which we could see from our front window, had a library that I loved. I spen two summers, when I was 13 and 14, at the beach (which we could ride our bikes to) working my way through the church library’s Agatha Christie collection. Going back to visit during the past decade, I’ve gone to Mass at the church but it has always been on holidays when the volunteers who staff the library (only open on Sunday mornings) had the day off. I’ve looked through the windows though! The same rack of Nancy Drew books was there! On the last visit, I learned that the church has opened a preschool and could see through the windows that the library has been redesigned to accommodate that. It was momentarily disappointing because the frozen-in-time nostalgia was gone, but I then realized that the library has been given new life and hopefully will be inspiring the same love of reading that I had.

    I don’t know that I’ll ever be near Poquoson, but if I am I will definitely stop in at the library!

    • Susan, in graduate school (library school) my favorite part of “theory”– though we didn’t call it theory as I recall– was Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science. The fifth law is that the library is a growing organism. You are seeing evidence of that. As with all forms of growth, it can be painful because we lose some part of the old as the new emerges. But it’s a necessary process. Incidentally, one of the hardest things for most librarians of my generation to learn, is that the collection must be relentlessly weeded (old books removed if they are outdated or not being used) to make way for the new.

      • Susan

        Oh, that must be very hard sometimes! At least now we have Ebay and other online sources for old books. In the “old days” all you could hope for was running across something in a used book store — a needle in a haystack, although those stores have their own charms too.

        Fairfax County libraries just got a new system which includes the price of each book you check out, so the screen says how much you’ve saved so far this year by using the library. I’m looking forward to seeing my 2020 total! One benefit of libraries is that you can take a chance on books that you aren’t sure you’ll enjoy, or books that you only want to read a small portion of, which you might be reluctant to pay full price for.

        • Susan, I think that’s a great idea about the library telling people the prices. Between you and me, we may have saved enough money over the years to fund a small nation, hee-hee. Seriously, you are right that the library allows us to try things we would not otherwise experience. I think the public library systems of America are one of its greatest blessings. BTW that reminds me of a funny thing that happened at one of our homes when the kids were little and we used to haunt the library continually. The library was always one of the first places we got to know in a new town. In one town, a couple of months after we moved there, the little local paper had a headline: “CIRCULATION STATISTICS INCREASE SIGNIFICANTLY AT LOCAL LIBRARY.” I told Jeff I could take personal credit for that one! 😀

          • Susan

            Lol, that would indeed be a proud achievement!

            Those cards that used to go in the books, where you signed your name (itt’s still nostalgic to buy a used book and find the empty pocket inside) — n school I always thought it was fun to see who else had checked out the book before me. And sometimes I had checked out a favorite book again and found my name previously on the card 🙂 .

            • Yes, I was only half joking when I took credit. I too have fond memories of the old checkout systems, long before computers took everything over. And at least once or twice– on a book that was not popular enough to have the cards fill up and be replaced– I would find my name from years back on the card for a book I was reading again. Those card pockets and library cards would, by today’s standards, be considered violations of privacy. Sort of makes me wonder whether we had less to hide in those bygone years!

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