Archive for August 2011

Library as Metaphor

August 13, 2011

I still recall the feel of the book, the yellow tint of overhead bulbs, the exact moment when I understood that books were made things, that words written by a stranger 100 years ago continue a beckoning call to new readers – and I wanted to become a maker of such things, a writer of words that (with good fortune and perhaps a bit of skill) could outlast me for years to come.

The place: our public library in Danville, Illinois.  The time: a Saturday morning, 1965.

This entry is not, however, about the publication of a book forty years later, or about the profound sense of purpose when I returned to my hometown a few weeks ago and located a copy of my book on its shelves.  Good topics, both.  Rather, it involves a small story about that small town library, a modest anecdote resonating a much larger theme. 

The new library building, with modern brick facades, bronze sculptures of children reading on the lawn, and a fully-computerized infrastructure not unlike many libraries in many other towns, is situated across the street from the old library of my childhood, now a museum.  As the town readied for the opening of the new library (several years ago), the last phase of the project involved the transfer of books from old building to new.  They didn’t hire specialists.  They didn’t use crates or forklifts.  They used little red wagons and dozens of children.

The wagons were donated by their manufacturer, just for this purpose.  And so it was, one Saturday morning, that a very organized but energetic line of little people – each with their own red wagon – moved an entire library’s contents from the library I knew to their sleek new home one hundred yards away, back and forth with their numbered, Dewey-catalogued pile of books, somewhere among them the one I held in my hands in 1965 and the one I published in 2005.  And it doesn’t require much imagination to visualize that scene from the air: the living channel of content and containers, the transfer of immense (incalculable) amounts of words and pictures from one physical location to another, the simple-but-important protocols each child was instructed to follow, and the sequencing-validation-archival of librarians chartered with ensuring that not a single word or book (or child or wagon) is lost in the transfer.

It reminds me of the advances in technology we now all take for granted, how gigabits of data (books and songs and movies) are so easily transferred across great (unimaginable) distances from one (now unknowable) physical location to the tiny device in our hands.  My teenage son does not know what a card catalog looks like, but he navigates the universe of information as easily as those kids navigated their wagons.  Information transfer is now measured in milliseconds. Fonts can be changed via menu.  Foreign languages translated with a click.

And yet, the physical space of the library itself – the quietness of reading rooms, the cluttered bulletin boards in the lobby, the airy ceilings of light – still remain a place for community, refuge, safety, and those moments of occasional delight.