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Friday, August 26, 2011

Library: another word for paradise...

Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

"I have always imagined that Paradise
will be a kind of library."
~Jorge Luis Borges

For me, a library IS paradise.  Where else can you find shelf after shelf of books, on every subject imaginable, and all free for the taking... er... borrowing?  I LOVE going to the library, and I've felt that way ever since I can remember.

My earliest library memories revolve around going to the public library in Ames, Iowa (where I grew up) when I was about six years old.  I can still picture walking in the front door with my mom and little sister.  Straight ahead were stairs leading down, and then on either side of that were staircases going up.  "Up" was where we headed back then.  I can still hear the echo of our feet on those stone steps.

At the top of the stairs was the check-out area.  I remember high ceilings and a tall wooden desk with librarians sitting behind, waiting to stamp due dates on cards and slide them back in their pockets.  There was a metal spiral staircase behind them, leading up to another level that looked out over the lobby area.  The books up there and in the rooms to the left were for grown-ups.  The children's section, where I wanted to go, was off to the right.

I would head over there eagerly, first stepping into the large, airy room filled with chapter books for older kids, and then making a beeline into the second room, the one that held picture books, easy-to-read books, and my very favorite thing (every Ames child's favorite thing, I think) -- a display case called "The Little Theater".   

Every month or so, librarians would come up with a new theme for The Little Theater... centered around one or more children's books... and then create a diorama related to the book(s).  The scenes were always elaborate and wonderful to look at!  My sister and I would climb up on the wooden step provided and gaze through the glass, studying the diorama until we'd seen every tiny detail.

I found the following picture of The Little Theater (in the background there) on the Ames Historical Society website.  I'm guessing it's from the 1950's, a few decades before my sister and I used to press our noses against that glass!

When we were finally done looking at the display, I would hurry off to find new books (or old favorites) to bring home.  Once I had all the books I could hold, I would sit down at one of the tables in the children's section and start reading until it was time to go home. 

I loved the quiet hush of the library, the smell of the books, the sunshine streaming in the big windows, and, especially, the hundreds of stories that I checked out and "devoured" through the years.

When I was older, I learned how to use the card catalog and find periodicals or other resources for research papers.  A year or two after that, I was finally allowed to check out books from the young adult section in the basement of the library ~ I remember feeling so mature and worldly. :)  (I must admit, however -- even as a "sophisticated" teenager -- I still went straight to The Little Theater to see the new display before heading down to the basement!)

This northern side was originally the front of the Ames Public
Library, back when I first started going there.

Now the entrance is on the eastern side....
(A big thank you to my sister Christine for these photos!)

When I was in high school, a large addition was built onto the library, and all those rooms where I had spent so much of my childhood were now off-limits, part of the "staff only" area.  A new entrance was built, and a new circulation area.  All of the children's books and the young adult books were moved to the addition, along with The Little Theater.  I was sad about the changes at the time, even though the new area was very nice.  It just wasn't MY library anymore, the library from my memories.

That didn't stop me from going there, however, and I eventually got used to the changes.  I also started hanging out in the ISU library with my friends -- I think we thought it made us cool, wandering around among all the college students.... 

Soon I was a college student myself, at the University of Iowa.  I spent A LOT of time in the library during college.  Some of it at the U of I library, of course, but I spent even more time at the Iowa City Public Library.  A wonderful place, and very close to campus, it became a favorite hangout of mine.  I went there almost daily as a freshman, and nearly as often the other years!  Among many other conveniences, they offered a small room with tables, chairs, and vending machines, where people were allowed to eat.  I frequently packed a sack lunch and ate it there between classes, my latest free-reading book in hand.

Since that time, whenever I've moved to a new town, the local library has always been one of the first places that I've searched out and explored.  In one suburb, there was only a tiny, single-room library.  In another, Arlington Heights, I discovered a large, fantastic library!  It immediately replaced both the Ames Public Library and the Iowa City Public Library in my mind, for best library ever.  (I still take the kids over there every once in awhile.  We all love it!)

When we moved to our current suburb, I classified the library as "okay".  It certainly wasn't fantastic, like the one in Arlington Heights, but it was much better than the single-room library.  Then, a couple of years ago, they did a BIG expansion and renovation.  While all the construction was going on, the library building was closed for about a year.  When the kids and I wanted new books, we had to check them out from a mini library, set up in a strip mall.  We were all very glad when they finally reopened the actual library, and... wow... it is so much bigger and better than before!  My kids and I love to spend time there!  We tend to make weekly visits, especially in the summer, and we always leave the library with our arms full of books. :)

Libraries certainly have changed from when I was a girl.  I don't think any of my kids know what a card catalog is... though the older two do know how to look up books on the library computers.  My youngest wouldn't even know what to do with a "due date" card and pocket inside a book... but he does know how to scan the books to check them out, and then press the button on the screen for the receipt listing all the books we're borrowing.  Besides books, there are DVDs, CDs, computer games, and more to check out and take home.  The polished wood and marble surfaces of the library from my childhood have been replaced with contemporary metal and glass in our current library, along with neon lighting and modern, funky furniture.

Fortunately, some things haven't changed.  I still love the peaceful atmosphere of a library, only footsteps and whispers breaking the silence. I still love the smell of all those books in one place.  I still love browsing through aisle after aisle of books, picking out new stories (or old favorites) to take home and read, filling my arms till I can't hold any more.  And, even after all this time, the library is still one of my very favorite places to spend time in, a paradise on earth.

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