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It was all so good, these blowing quiet October nights and the library waiting inside now with its green-shaded lamps and papyrus dust.


They opened the door and stepped in.
They stopped.
The library deeps lay waiting for them.
Out in the world, not much happened.  But here, in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did.  Listen! and you heard ten thousand people screaming so high only dogs feathered their ears.  A million folk ran toting cannons, sharpening guillotines; Chinese, four abreast, marched on forever...  This was a factory of spices from far countries.  Here alien deserts slumbered.  Up front was the desk where the nice old lady, Miss Watriss, purple-stamped your books, but down off away were Tibet and Antarctica, the Congo.  There went Miss Wills, the other librarian, through Outer Mongolia, calmly toting fragments of Peiping and Yokohama and the Celebes...

It is almost the end of October.  Usually in October I have posted diaries about Ray Bradbury, whose "October country" is a very strange, very disturbing, and very attractive place.  The above is from Something Wicked This Way Comes, which I think was his best book, and one of his relatively few sustained novels (rather than collections of short stories, sometimes very closely linked, such as The Martian Chronicles).  It seems appropriate to start a diary with his writing, even if he is not the main topic of my essay tonight.

Over the last few days I have gotten into several discussions about libraries, and about books.  About their smell and their physicality.  

This last weekend I had the experience of watching a little girl who had hated to read because it was hard suddenly discover how magical it was when the books in front of her stopped becoming the enemy and became the wonderful thing her mother and I know they are.  When she was haunting used book stores, and insisting that we stop every time she saw a new bookstore (there are a lot of them in London), we were discussing the joys of visiting libraries and walking out with stacks of books, and comparing the age we were when we read X and Y and Z.  Although my parents had lots of books (and my Dracula and Jane Eyre and The Triffids were their copies), we didn't have too many contemporary children's books.  We had the classics for adults, but children's books were from the library.  The first Dr. Seuss book I got was when I was in high school, and the Little House on the Prairie and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and their sequels all came from the library.  

And what a library.  It was a gorgeous Carnegie library, still standing in Lawrence, Kansas.    The children's librarian was Mrs. Paretsky (Sara Paretsky's mother), and she must have known each and every child who went through that library.  She would tell us what books we would like to read, and point out things on the new shelves.  And she was always right about what we would like (or at least I don't remember the bad stuff).  

But the thing I remember about that library most is, funnily enough, the way it smelled.  And Ray Bradbury captures that perfectly.  I guess without his poetic abilities I would say it was dust and mustiness, but to me it has always been pages of magic, hidden secrets, and creaking leather (yes, that has a smell -- if you don't know that, I really can't help you).  Even books that have the plastic-y outside smelled of leather (like the rather hideous flesh-coloured cover on the book about the six wives of Henry VIII that felt like the first adult book I ever read (it may have been, or might not, but that is how I remember it so that is the story I tell).

That smell haunted me.  I never liked the brand new library at college.  It was gorgeous and all.  But I preferred the seminar rooms in the Archaeology department.  They had that smell, that magic.  The books were fragile and Mrs. Mellink, chair of the department, would come in periodically to check that you were handling them correctly and not breaking the binding -- she would "happily" show you how you were holding the book, or resting it on the table, was bad for it.  There was no photocopying of the books allowed.  And I learned to read them and take notes from them there, as they were non-circulating.  That meant, of course, that everything was in pretty good condition, was on the shelf when you needed it, and you could follow a trail wherever it led.  Even though this was non-fiction, these were the treasure hunts of the fairy books my dad had read to us.  These were literally treasure hunts, actually, as I realized when I sat one Friday evening reading an account of the finding of gold at Troy by Heinrich Schliemann.  

My home university's library is also new, or at least newly rebuilt, and very few of the books are old.  There is not that scent of the past.  And in fact the conversation I had at lunch was talking about how books are moving more and more to the electronic sphere.  There is JSTOR rather than journals now, and I finally signed up for an online subscription bibliographic database in my field, which I had avoided for a while for a thousand reasons that don't make sense, but perhaps mostly because I remember that database when it was bound in beautiful blue volumes and you had to search through it year by year to find anything, and you always got sidetracked with something else.  I don't need those volumes now (and I don't have access to them, anyway) because I have this database.  Sigh.

The person I was talking to at lunch, who oversees a library as part of his job, said "In a few years, we'll just check out I-pads to library visitors."  I know some people who think this is progress.  And it is, I know.  

But I miss the magic of discovery, of pulling books off a shelf to see which one has the most interesting article, or the most interesting story.  I can do that to a certain extent at a bookstore, or a used bookstore, but there it is so hit-and-miss and anyway most of the big used book sellers seem to have gone on line.  When I shop on line at a used bookstore I will only buy a book I need.  But when I shop in a bookstore itself I will buy all sorts of strange things.  

I suppose in a way I am trying to recapture the magic of the public library of my childhood, when everything on the shelves promised an adventure.  My friend's daughter is at the beginning of what I hope will be a lifetime of adventure.  I almost envy her.  But I have a lot more of my own ahead.  And that will do for me right now.

Originally posted to annetteboardman on Fri Oct 29, 2010 at 04:52 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

    •  Thanks for this memory. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      You took me back to college days - not an easy task after all these years :-)  I guess I was fortunate in that, although our library building was new, most of the books were not.  The one thing I remember was the adjustment to the LOC numbering system.  

      I'd grown up with Dewey decimal, and spent a fair number of hours volunteering in my high school library.  I was able to find almost anything without benefit of the card catalog.  Finding things in the college stacks became a whole new problem/adventure.  

      I also remember the tiny study carrels on the perimeter of the stacks.  It was always interesting to see who would spend time in those almost monastic cubbyholes.  Although it meant a lot of legwork, I always preferred the big tables in the great open reference rooms.  The ceilings were high and the windows full-length, making the rooms bright and cheery.  I'd drag my piles of books from the stack warren and into the light, back and forth, back and forth.

      Ah, I love a good trip down memory lane.  Thank you!

      -7.62, -7.28 "Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly." -Langston Hughes

      by luckylizard on Sat Oct 30, 2010 at 04:10:17 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you...this is lovely (9+ / 0-)

    I, too, hope we have libraries forever!!!

    Join us at Bookflurries: Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Fri Oct 29, 2010 at 05:10:05 PM PDT

  •  Ab-so-lutely. (6+ / 0-)

    There's nothing like rummaging through the stacks and finding something you weren't even looking for, then realizing you should have been looking for that in the first place.  It's hard to have that kind of discovery when you're using a search engine.

    And... I'm far from a Luddite, but I don't like having our reading habits dependent on electronic formats (and thus a power source), which doesn't bode well if you're ever lacking the batteries.  A book doesn't disappear when you're out of juice: the printed page is more permanent.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Fri Oct 29, 2010 at 05:28:19 PM PDT

  •  My library is changing in ways I don't like. (8+ / 0-)

      They are talking about "improving" it so that all the books will be moved to the upper floor (not open to patrons) and the oh-so-ready-to-serve-you librarians will go and fetch the book you request.
      But how will I know the books I want when I can't wander down the rows and shelves of books as various ones catch my eye?
      Years ago they closed off the older stacks; I loved to wander around there and rediscovered old favorites and authors that were no longer "in."
      Why bother with book cover design when people aren't allowed to see the books?
      I just do not understand these changes, and it saddens me.  

    •  that is just tragic (8+ / 0-)

      Is there anything you can do to change their minds?

    •  The Library is closed at (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      annetteboardman, ColoTim

      the "laboratory" which currently employs employs me. Oh, we have electronic access to all the journals that used to be housed in the brick and mortar building, but not to all the issues from those journals, since the paper-bound volumes covered the decades that haven't been scanned yet, or, never will be. That means many of the good ideas that were light-years ahead of the technology that could have proved them are basically lost.

      This is in contrast to the library for the laboratory where I used to work. There, the older paper volumes are still on the shelves, and these are utterly precious, in my antiquarian's opinion. They fall open naturally to the most used, and hence, most significant articles from those journals, many of which sport marginalia, or, handwritten comments from later researchers about the equations or the conclusions.


      Radarlady, missing those quiet afternoons wandering through the journals, becoming fascinated by all the things she didn't go there to find out...

  •  I might have been about 8 (6+ / 0-)

    when they renovated the public library in my hometown; up til then it was fantastically tall shelves, marble floors, and high windows that let the light play with the dust motes. After, it was all accessible, cheerful, and carpeted. Never had the same magic of possible discoveries...

    Anyone who scoffs at happiness needs to take their soul back to the factory and demand a better one. -driftglass

    by postmodernista on Fri Oct 29, 2010 at 05:53:00 PM PDT

  •  I was going to say it would have to be... (5+ / 0-)

    ...a library. :-)

    •  Or an old fashioned (0+ / 0-)

      hardware store.  There are two three places that can be dangerous for me: a library/bookstore, an office supply store, and a hardware store.  There are just so many interesting things to see and learn in each.  They trigger memories and imagination.

      -7.62, -7.28 "Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly." -Langston Hughes

      by luckylizard on Sat Oct 30, 2010 at 04:14:18 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you for the (5+ / 0-)

    Ray Bradbury. I'd forgotten about that story; now I'll have to go re-read it.

    Open stacks, serendipity, the smell of bindings and paper, the thrill of finding something new and special and totally unexpected. Anyone who thinks electronic stuff can replace that has no imagination or romance in his soul.

    One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.--A.A. Milne

    by Mnemosyne on Fri Oct 29, 2010 at 07:22:54 PM PDT

  •  Beautiful, annetteboardman! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annetteboardman, ColoTim

    Very glad your diary was rescued!

    "The opposite of war isn't peace, it's CREATION." _ Jonathan Larson, RENT

    by BeninSC on Sat Oct 30, 2010 at 08:21:26 PM PDT

  •  I LOVE Libraries!!!!!!!!! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annetteboardman, ColoTim

    and thankfully I married a man who shares this love with me :) which means we take regular trips to our local libraries (plural cause we have a few favs) and almost always have a stack of new library finds sitting on our bedroom dresser.

    I spent many saturdays in my youth in the library near my parents store...  it was a fantastical place where I could sit for hours just reading and reading and reading...

    since this is Halloween I am remembering the day I found this book on a shelf in the library that began my love of fantasy...  it was called 'the little blue nosed witch' and I didnt even wait to get it home to start reading it :)  its a wonderful book for kids :)

    "can you please continue the petty bickering...I find it most intriguing" DATA

    by KnotIookin on Sat Oct 30, 2010 at 08:34:28 PM PDT

  •  Mary Paretsky (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annetteboardman, radarlady, ColoTim

    How fortunate you were to have Mary Paretsky as your librarian when you were young! I first met her in my early 20s, when I was a green-as-grass children's librarian and served on a committee with her. She always brought such enthusiasm to the table and it was a joy to work with her. Her office was the first one where I ever saw the sign 'A clean desk is a sign of a sick mind'. 8)

    Thanks for the library love letter!

  •  I share many of these same memories, but (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    annetteboardman, radarlady

    I'm sorry to say it's been years since I last wandered through a library looking for things.  The last library I went through was just a small part of a large museum and I was just going from point A to point B.  Prior to that, I think the point was to pick up voting materials or tax forms.

    My wife doesn't understand the library I have that I moved from the old house to the new, primarily because she doesn't see me reading books (I spend much of my reading time online), but I'd be devastated if I didn't have my library to browse through occasionally, even if it's just to be reminded of all the wonderful stories that are within those pages, waiting for me to come be renewed.  I've read most of my books, but I don't want to recirculate them.  We share hours of good times, each and every book, so they're my friends and I don't think I could donate them and believe they're going off to make new friends.  I'd miss them (then again my wife feels I'm overly sentimental).

    Okay.  How is this idea - I've got a library in my home office, but I've also got the Internet, and I'm still browsing and picking up lots of new knowledge and tidbits while still being able to smell the fragrance of books.  My choices are far beyond what my local or even University libraries contained, and while I can waste lots of hours, I still learn lots here on Kos and through links to other websites so I don't feel like my ability to explore is diminished.  Indeed, I feel like there are vast worlds that are just waiting to be explored.  

    I'll never give up my books (cold dead hands somehow is the image in my mind, as someone pries loose a Travis McGee novel, but perhaps I'll have a mouse in my other hand as well).

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