Want to hear something terrifying? I once had to tell a librarian that a dog ate my
And, this wasn’t just any librarian, this was the woman who had previously thrown me out of the library for whisper talking while working on an assigned class project. (A CLASS PROJECT, people.)
I miss those days — the ones where libraries were overseen by very serious women with glasses who barely smiled and were certainly not amused when you confessed that your boyfriend’s dog chewed up the only library copy of A Tale Of Two Cities that was assigned to you during English-Lit. I miss the days where you could hear a pin drop when you entered a library and the only sounds were the rustling pages of books or the occasional squeaking of an unoiled metal library book cart wheel. I miss the days where there was no funny business and if you were in the library at a table it was because you had some serious studying or reading to do. I miss the days where you didn’t have to put headphones on if you wanted some peace and quiet in the library. I miss the days of the library where you weren’t even allowed to chew gum, let alone drink or eat.
I’ll admit, the libraries of today do seem like much more fun for kids than when I was growing up. Our small local library has a children’s section large enough to fit my high school’s entire library into it. And, there aren’t just rows and rows of books for kids. In that one area, there are small cubicles of computers for playing learning games, where Elmo loudly echoes into the void when the games have been abandoned midway through. There’s a puppet theater and (what seems like) hundreds of matted animal puppets so you can put on an imaginary show. There are small tables with Lego bricks and crafts and coloring sheets. There’s a reading corner with toys where you can do things other than read. There are two restrooms … just in that area! There is an entire Teen Room (labeled across the top as such) with couches and overstuffed chairs and many, many outlets to ensure that dying phones never miss the OMGsoimportant text.
You can now use your phone — IN THE LIBRARY — which people do often, not considering that others really don’t want (nor need) to hear their conversations while enjoying time in this confined space. Not long ago, a preteen in the library had an entire 20 minute conversation with her mom on speaker phone. After they finished, I knew where the girl was going after she left the library, that she was going alone, and what they were having for dinner (which is a topic for another post.) And, the teen room is very, very loud, despite the 17 shelves of books that fill the space between where I sit and the closed, glass door of that room.
All of this together works to make the library of today a destination.
When I was growing up, the library was anything but a destination. The library was … a requirement. It was a place to check out books. It was a place to quietly study. It was a place to get some work done. You went in, did what you needed to do, and then left. You didn’t hang, you didn’t eat or drink, and you certainly didn’t talk, let alone on a phone. (How dare you?) And, all the while you were there, you were watched closely, over reading glasses pushed low on the nose, and shushed often by ladies with graying hair cropped short over the ears, presumably to make it easier to hear when you slid a book into the wrong spot on the shelf.
Back then, there were no loudly singing characters dancing across computer screens. Heck, there weren’t even computers to look up your books. Instead, there were long rows of small wooden drawers containing index cards with numbers like 796.01 and 311.0942 and 823.914 typed on them (with a typewriter!), and you had to decipher those numbers into the location of a book in some stupefying scholastic scavenger hunt.
The books weren’t scanned into a system when checking them out, and there were no handy printed receipts that told you when to return the books. (And there was certainly no email reminder that your books were due!) Instead, there were lined cards that slipped into paper pockets pasted at the back of books. The cards and the pockets were hand stamped with the return date, and you could hear the clunk-clunk of that stamping process echoing occasionally through the quiet of the library as it startled you out of your thoughts. If you look in the back of some older library books, you can still see the now empty evidence of the past.
I was recently in our local library that we frequent at least once a week. There were two teen-ish girls sitting at a table near me and they had tall cups of a frozen drinks, which they were loudly slurping while talking and laughing at normal tone. A little while later, two of the librarians stopped right by my table, enjoying a conversation about a movie and laughing loudly … and, they weren’t even using inside voice.
But, don’t mind me, I’ll just be over here wearing my headphones and trying to create some quiet space. In the library. Drinking the drink I smuggled in, even though I didn’t have to hide it.
At least I still don’t have to decipher the Dewey Decimal System and, for that, I am thankful.