12 Authors Write About the Libraries They Love.

My Temple
The first library I knew was an upstairs room over a storefront in my little Kentucky town, with a librarian who didn’t approve of children handling books. (I begged; she relented.) The second was a van kitted out with bookshelves and sent out on the rounds of our rural county, a godsend to children and many adults who had no easy way of getting to town. The Bookmobile was the whole world parked on my gravel road. It came once a month, and we were allowed only three books at a time, but the Bookmobile lady had a heart. She let me check out as many as I could carry. Everywhere I’ve gone since I’ve found libraries. Those of us launched from bare-bones schools in uncelebrated places will always find particular grace in a library, where the temple doors are thrown wide to all believers, regardless of pedigree. Nowadays I have the normal professional reliance on internet research, but my heart still belongs to the church of the original source. Every book I’ve written has some magic in it I found in physical stacks or archives. Or the facade, in the case of my first novel. The library I frequented in Tucson was draped in wisteria with long, dangling pods: the bean trees. For my latest, it was a cache of letters Charles Darwin wrote to a lady scientist in Vineland, N.J. Once it was a very old Kikongo-English dictionary I found in the University of Arizona library’s special collections. It wasn’t supposed to leave the room, but I am persuasive. I said, “Something good could happen if you let me borrow this book.” I took it home; a novel called “The Poisonwood Bible” happened. This is my thank-you note to every librarian who’s ever helped a kid like me, nobody from nowhere, find her doorway through a library shelf into citizenship of the world. If one of them ever begs you to bend the rules, I’m going to say: Let her do it.
Barbara Kingsolver, “Unsheltered”
Only in St. Louis
These are some of the things you can do at the St. Louis County libraries: check out books; check out a ukulele or banjo; take Coding 101 classes (if you’re a kid); earn a high school diploma online (if you’re an adult); eat a free lunch in the summer, including pizza on Fridays. These are some of the things I personally have done at the St. Louis County Library headquarters, located in a suburb across from a shopping mall: celebrated the publication of my two most recent books by giving readings; had my picture taken for a magazine article; attended readings by Colson Whitehead, Emily Giffin, Ron Suskind, Tracy Chevalier, George Hodgman, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and many other authors. Two of my peak St. Louis experiences as in the most intensely St. Louisiest occurred at the county library headquarters. In 2007, when we’d been living here just a few months, my then-fiancĂ© and now-husband and I attended a reading by Jonathan Franzen. To some in the book world, Franzen is a talented curmudgeon. To St. Louisans, he is a hometown boy made good, and we are very proud of him. At Franzen’s 2007 event, he read an essay about selling his parents’ house, located in a neighbourhood just a few miles away from where he stood. During the Q. and A. session, it emerged that quite a few people in the audience knew Franzen or his family and perhaps even made cameos in his nonfiction. I was filled with a good and surprising feeling: Because I now live in St. Louis, I thought, I will have experiences, including literary experiences, that I wouldn’t have if I lived elsewhere. Ten years later, I was invited to conduct an onstage interview that was also a library fund-raiser with another beloved native son: the actor Jon Hamm. More than 800 people, about 95 per cent of whom were women, were crammed into chairs set up in the space usually occupied by bookshelves, and those of us who weren’t already smitten with Hamm before he spoke certainly were after. He was charming and funny and unreasonably handsome as he acknowledged that St. Louis is a city with both serious problems and many wonderful qualities. This past August, I moved to Minneapolis. But that hunch I’d had a decade before, in the very same building, had been borne out: In the library and elsewhere, because I lived in St. Louis, I have had experiences I wouldn’t have had if I lived elsewhere.
Curtis Sittenfeld, “You Think It, I’ll Say It”
If There’s a Heaven, It’s a Library
When I was a boy, in the school holidays, from the age of 7, my parents would drop me at the local library on their way to work. It was a ritual, and it was why I loved the holidays. The library was a red brick building on the London Road in East Grinstead.In the beginning, I would head for the children’s library, in the back, open the card index, which listed books by subject and explore ghosts or magic, time travel or space. I would find a book I liked, and read everything by the author. I discovered that the librarians could, through the wonder of the interlibrary loan, get me books they did not have and that they would. As far as the librarians were concerned, I was just another customer, and I was treated with a level of respect that I don’t recall getting anywhere else, even at school.Eventually, I just started reading the children’s library alphabetically, working my way through it author by author. I cannot imagine being happier than that. I would walk home when the library closed at 6, and be home in time for dinner. It was a perfect arrangement, one marred only by hunger so I would take a sandwich in a plastic bag, and grudgingly head outside to the parking lot to scoff it as quickly and efficiently as I could. Eating time was not reading time.As I entered my teen years I had read the children’s library and so moved into the adult library. Nobody tried to stop me. I discovered that reading it alphabetically meant that I was encountering a number of very dull books indeed, so I started moving through looking for favourite authors Brian Aldiss in the A’s, Ursula K. Le Guin in the G’s, R. A. Lafferty in the L’s and so on. By this time I was walking to the library in the morning, walking home at night when they closed. It was still my favourite place in the world. They knocked it down and built a new library when I was 17, and now that library too is gone. Librarians sometimes discourage me from telling this story. They point out that libraries should not be seen or used as child-minding services, and that feral children should be discouraged from raising themselves on the shelves and the stacks. These things are true.Still, if there is a heaven, one of the many mansions it must contain is a red brick Victorian building, all wood and shelves, waiting for me. And the shelves will be filled with books by beloved authors, as good as or better than the ones I knew. I will read my way through the adult library, and then, to attain perfect bliss, I will enter the children’s library, and never need to leave it. Not even to eat my sandwiches in the parking lot.
Neil Gaiman, “American Gods”
Free Meant Freedom
I was 6 when my father walked me to my first library, two blocks away from home, in Oakland, Calif. It was an old red brick building with fancy castle embellishments and gigantic double doors a child would not have been strong enough to push open. As I stood in the vast room, I felt tiny and timid. The only places I’d been with ceilings this high were the church and the hospital. The first provided provisos for entering heaven, and the other contained fever, pain and terror. This enormous room, I soon learned, was like a toy store where everything was free. My parents rarely bought children’s books. Why pay money for something that could be read in an hour and was then used up?The children’s section was on the left closest to the tall gothic windows. The easiest books were on the bottom. Since I could already read, I knew I should choose books on higher shelves, the harder books. That would show I was smarter than other kids my age. I realize now this was evidence I knew the concept of competition and its consequences of either pride or shame. In my family, anything easy was not worth doing. But here, I was allowed to choose for myself and whatever was within those books would remain private.My first library gave me the freedom to exist in private, to choose and even be greedy. I took 10 books the first time illustrated books, fables, fairy tales and happy stories of white children and their kind parents. A week later, now initiated, I was allowed to walk to the library by myself, carrying the 10 books I had finished reading, knowing I could choose many more to furnish my vast secret room, my imagination, all mine.
Amy Tan, “Where the Past Begins”
On Being and Feeling Good
Books, Mama tells me before dropping me off at the Medgar Evers Library, are portals into black survival in America. Mama believes if I can read, write and master everything white Mississippians deem literary, I will be more likely to anticipate and evade the worst parts of my state, and the most terrifying parts of my country.I am 10 years old and this makes little sense to me.No matter what time of the day, the Medgar Evers Library smells like damp carpet and sugar cane. There is a dusty little bowl of chewy, sugary orange slices at the librarian’s desk next to a sign that says “Just Say No.”That sign makes me laugh.To Mama and other grown folks in Jackson, Miss., libraries are training grounds. I train at home, where books line the wall. I train in the massive library on the campus of Jackson State University while Mama teaches political science classes. I train in a tiny library held up by cinderblocks at Holy Family Catholic School.Compared to the libraries I usually train in, Medgar Evers is bare, but the prominently displayed books there are written by black authors.There is a small section in the library focused on the work of Langston Hughes.Mama thinks I’ve read every word of the books she assigns. The truth is that I’ve never read any book cover to cover except “Anansi the Spider.” Today, while I spread out on the floor next to the Highlight magazines, I read a book called “Langston Hughes: Poet of His People” cover to cover.For the first time in my life, I am not rushing to turn a page. I reread passages I don’t understand. I reread passages I understand far too well. I check the book out so I can reread it when I get home.Mama asks what I read when I get in the car. “Something that makes me good,” I tell her. “Something that makes me feel good.”
Kiese Laymon, “Heavy: An American Memoir”
The Sun and the Moon
At the beach, the sunlit water is sapphire; the ghosts of spring breakers past still dance on tabletops. But further inland, the library knows another Fort Lauderdale. Seven years ago, I gave a reading at the main library. They served mint tea and baklava. Most of my book tour happened in bookstores, but in Fort Lauderdale, the Borders had shuttered and the indies had dwindled away. So the library had stepped in to reclaim the town’s literary identity. There were workshops and author appearances; each year they sponsored a book festival. The downtown building stands near the railroad tracks that divide Florida’s east coast into economic and racial partitions. It attracts travellers, nomads, refugees from both sides of the tracks. A few years after that first reading, my daughter and I met up on the library steps with some other parents and children. We were tired and hot, happy to get into air-conditioning. There were the usual enticements books of course, and computers, toys and a chess set of child-size pieces. Then we heard the library had a moon rock on display.“From the actual moon?” the children cried. We searched the library’s several floors before spotting a display. The rock was small, grey and unassuming.“That’s it?” someone asked. But at bedtime that evening I reminded my daughter, “Just think, our library holds part of the moon.”Wonder moved through her face; she nodded gravely. “Let’s go back tomorrow.”When you hear “Fort Lauderdale,” literature might not be the first thing that springs to mind. In this land of tanned bodies and Jell-O shots, the library whispers. Free of charge, it offers us the weight of starlight, the light of the moon and the music of uninterrupted imagination.
Diana Abu-Jaber, “Life Without a Recipe”
A Place to Come Together
Twenty years ago, I lived in Lincoln, Vt., a little village that lost its library. Lincoln is a hill town of barely a thousand people halfway up Vermont’s fifth highest mountain, and while it gets its share of leaf peepers in the autumn, it’s a far cry from the picturesque hamlets that have ski resorts to entice tourists the rest of the year. But it has a general store that bakes mint chocolate brownies worth every calorie and in 1998, it had a library the size of a living room that those of us who lived there cherished. That summer, after four weeks of rain, the New Haven River overflowed its banks and flooded the library. Five feet of water poured in, destroying 80 per cent of the collection and every single children’s book that wasn’t checked out because those books were on the lowest shelves. The next day, as my neighbours piled the waterlogged books to be pulped, some were weeping.I’ll always recall the sadness of life without a library. My daughter was 4 years old then, and a big part of our routine was walking there together and picking out books. I wasn’t alone. The whole village had PTSD because a library is one of the only parts of a community that is comfortably multigenerational. There are children’s story hours and seniors doing yoga and middle school kids working on class projects. But I also remember how, once the shock of the loss was behind us, we built a new library with help from people across America. Readers in 38 states mailed us money. Others drove to Vermont from as far away as Pennsylvania with their cars packed with books. We didn’t ask for that: Strangers simply felt our pain and wanted to do something. Within two years, we had a spanking new library. This summer I was chatting with Deborah Lundbech, the director of the community library in New Haven, Vt. “One of my greatest joys is connecting a reader with a book,” Lundbech told me. “The other day, we had an 11-year-old girl in here who was so excited that we had books five and six in the series she was reading.”No one will confuse Vermont libraries with the New York Public Library, with its stone lions and 55 million catalogue items. But they matter, even the ones the size of a living room. It’s not merely that libraries connect us to books. It’s that they connect us to one another.
Chris Bohjalian, “The Flight Attendant”
Busy, but Calm
My nearest library is Port Townsend’s arts-and-crafts Carnegie, allied with the Jefferson County Library. Port Townsend on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula is a working seaport noted for its coastal views, Victorian architecture, exquisite private gardens. For a century it has been the cultural anchor of the region, though, like all small towns, it has its warring factions. The town attracts people of highly varied interests tourists, boat builders, savants, artists, mathematicians, horticulturists, musicians, scientists, bird watchers, organic farmers, filmmakers. The Carnegie director, Melody Sky Eisler, is one of the new-style extrovert librarians: gregarious and welcoming. Studying art in Egypt years ago she had a visceral shock in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. In the Snohetta-designed architectural showpiece, she asked about an empty niche and learned it was a memorial space where the ancient scrolls would have gone. She was moved by the power of a library that could still reverberate its value 2,000 years after it was destroyed so moved she shifted her studies from art to library science. The muscular Port Townsend library is nonstop busy from opening to the last exit of the day, checking out not only books but craft kits, movies, magazines, music DVDs. It seems most of Port Townsend’s population daily courses through the building. Like other libraries, it is also a pass-through place for transients. But upstairs the beautiful and calm old reading room remains as it was a hundred years ago. One reason for the library’s success is the town’s population. A characteristic of Port Townsend is citizen involvement in hundreds of volunteer projects from maritime science to the kinetic sculpture race. The library is beloved and although there is a staff of more than 15 people what makes the place efficient and engaging are the more than 70 volunteers. But Ms Eisler’s personal commitment to libraries is more than her affection for the community. She believes and says “librarians live and die by First Amendment rights.”
— Annie Proulx, “Barkskins”