I, personally, love libraries. So many books, all in one place, for anyone with a library card to read as they like. I love the shelves, the tables, the chairs. I love the way books seem to huddle all together, like friendly little knowledge storage devices.
There is magic in so many books in one place, which so many authors have tried to capture in their works. Everywhere I read, from Terry Pratchett to Jasper Fforde, libraries are places where space and time warp. Where books create pathways, where they speak to one another and change the very fabric of reality.
Of course, if you think about it, this is more than just a metaphor. Books don’t exist in a vacuum. Writers are inspired by other writers, by the world around them, and they send out messages in the works they create. Many books have had an impact on all of society. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair permanently changed food processing in the United States. Silent Spring may have led to the banning of some of the most harmful pesticides, saving many species of wildlife. Some books have an entire culture associated with them, like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.
And in a library, all these books live together. If there are places of magic in the world where we live, I’m sure they are in libraries.
Unfortunately, my time in these sacred buildings is limited these days. I often dash in for a terse visit, full of jangling nerves and whispered warnings. I don’t even dare tread into the adult section. Little Miss and Little Dude are not ideal library companions.
Fortunately, most of the libraries we visit these days are built with the smallest guests in mind. Not only does our haunt have a large children’s section with many comfy chairs and tables, it also has puzzles and craft tables, tablets and computers, and even bags of toys. Best of all, outside the library doors stands a playground, a huge lawn, trees, and even a pond with a fountain. Practically a paradise for those of us with high energy little ones.
Little Miss and Little Dude love books. It’s one of my favorite parenting activities, sitting with them for an hour or more, flipping through the pages of Go Dog, Go!, or The Princess in Black Takes a Vacation. But at the library, they are too distracted to sit and listen. They want to run up and down the shelves, pulling out volume after volume, while I try to carefully re-shelve them, during which time they’ve pulled down four more. I take pity on the librarians, and our visits only last ten minutes or so.
I like to imagine that it’s the power of all those books that makes them a little wild. Maybe seeing shelves crammed with stories, which they know can be pulled down and read, every one of them, turns them into little bundles of energy. Whatever it is that happens to them, I’ve learned the hard way what our limits are.
I used to take Little Miss to story-time at our old library, thinking that it would be a nice change from our usual outdoor activities. I hoped that the structure and activity would be enough to prevent the fearsome meltdowns that plagued our indoor forays. The first few times, it worked.
My daughter, not-quite-toddler, not-quite-preschooler, somberly walked up to the librarians at the front desk, and selected a name tag in the shape of a storybook character. Half-hidden behind my legs, she whispered her name. Then, her wide eyes trying to absorb the enormous wall mural – which represented the beasts from Where the Wild Things Are, swinging through trees – she followed me to the little tables where we could wile away the minutes until the story time began.
Her favorite puzzle at the time was a fairy surrounded by outfit options. She loved matching the fairy’s skirts and tops. She sometimes found it frustrating that the fairy had to wear one of the outfits at all times, because it meant when she was swapping in a new outfit, for a few seconds the pieces that were on the fairy didn’t match.
Working on the coloring pages that matched up with the day’s theme was entirely out of the question.
When the doors to the separate reading room opened, Little Miss rushed inside. This was always where the trouble began. The room was not a square, or even a rectangle. It was triangular, and for some reason the far back corner called to my daughter. As the other kids crowded around the front of the room where the books stood on display, my child ran to the back corner, slammed her hands against the wall, sprinted back to me, and then ran back to the corner.
I coaxed her back to the front of the room, using every trick I knew to keep her interested. I participated in all the songs with the enthusiasm of an actor in a musical. I pointed out animals in the books the librarian read.
For three or four of these tense reading sessions, once the books and songs started, she at least refrained from sprinting to the corner and back. She didn’t exactly participate in the songs, and she didn’t exactly listen to the books, but she at least deigned to sit beside me, with an expression as if she was being very tolerant of a tiresome activity.
Then the day came when she decided to tolerate it no more. The librarian began to read, and she began her sprints, from the front of the room to that magnificent back corner. Following her example, two other kids joined in, giggling and squealing. I felt the stares of the other moms on me, on my child. We were disrupting the peace, interrupting their otherwise wholesome outing. They had come here for songs and stories, not the shouting and raucous sprinting. Those things belonged on the playground.
My face burning, I hissed at my daughter that if she did not stop running, then we were going home. She sprinted away from me, grinning mischievously. So, we left the reading room, Little Miss glad to get away.
Out in the main part of the children’s section, the mischief continued. Rather than settle down as I’d hoped, my daughter grew even more rambunctious. She did not want to do the fairy puzzle, or color on a worksheet. She wanted to run through the Young Adult shelves, ripping volumes off and handing them to me.
Ashamed and overwhelmed, I took her from the library, quite literally kicking and screaming.
We never went back to that branch again. Contained to smaller libraries without enormous murals and without the constraint of a storytime, she stopped engaging in noisy sprinting sessions. I’ve also learned how to make trips to the library work for my kids. We keep them short and casual.
I’ve learned to tolerate the looks from other parents who frequent libraries. The adults with two-year-olds who can name every letter on the rug, while my five-year-old asks, “which one is this?” The grandparents with quiet toddlers who will gladly sit on the floor doing puzzles from the shelves while my kids play hide-and-seek in the aisles.
I’ve also learned to cherish those moments when they will both sit on a chair with me and listen as I read a story to them. I don’t even mind if it’s about a princess who loves to dance and twirl, or about trucks driving up and down country roads, topics for which I once held disdain. My standards are a little different these days.
I don’t try to take the kids into the adult section. If there’s a book I want, I check it out on my Kindle, and am grateful that’s even an option.
I don’t freak out if they make a little noise, or if they’re a bit rowdier than some of the other kids. And if things start to get out of hand, we grab our stack of books and transition to the playground. Little Miss can check out the books these days without help, plopping them onto the scanner, then into our library bags while I keep Little Dude from running in the midst of the adult patrons.
The library is a lot different for me these days. It used to be a place of peace, where I hung out between my classes in college, reading textbooks and enjoying the presence of thousands more tomes. I remember savoring the puffy chairs and the quiet corners, where I felt very much at home, where I always felt a sense of mild disbelief that there could be so many books, all in one place. Shelf after shelf of them, with high, grand windows and long tables and gentle lights. In libraries, the whole world made sense.
I even liked wandering through the deeper parts of the library, where older books were stored on metal shelves, away from windows and people studying. On one rare occasion, one of my classes took place in my college library’s rare books room. There, we all donned white gloves and breathed carefully in the presence of magazines hundreds of years old, containing Charles Dickens’s novels in their original serial form. I was the student who, after class was done, asked what the oldest book in the room was, apparently with enough enthusiasm that the librarians didn’t just tell me about it, they brought it out to show me.
I stared in wonder at a prayer book, bound in leather, written in French, every letter and illustration drawn by the hand of a monk dead for centuries. But here the work still remained, somehow alive, propped on a wooden stand, handled only by white-gloved hands.
Perhaps this instilled in me too much reverence for libraries. Perhaps, when my messy, noisy, sometimes destructive little offspring enter a building which I know holds so much that is sacred and valuable, my tension rises to unbearable levels, and sensing this, they too become tense. Maybe that is why I must keep our visits so short. But I know that later, as they grow, these trips will become easier. They both love to have books read, and will sit for over an hour while I go through half the books on our shelf. Their love is already there, and as they come to understand the importance of the library, as they learn to read and the titles on every spine become legible to them, our experiences there will grow and change.
In spite of the trouble that we’ve had in libraries, I still love going. And my children, even though they spend only a few minutes inside, love coming home with new books. I know that someday their love of books will become a love of the library, and then we will go without breaking the magic.
Someday, I might even visit the adult section again.