Libraries hold magic for Shemaiah. Not only are they doorways to new stories and worlds and characters, but as a bookworm, she feels at home being surrounded by books and fellow readers. For her, the library is more than a place — it’s an opportunity for community.
In sixth grade, my family moved into a two-story duplex on the edge of a city park. At night you could hear the soccer games though the chain link fence that divided the park from our driveway. We knew it was 10 p.m. when the city snapped off the floodlights that lit the fields. The neighborhood would grow quiet in the darkness.
But the park wasn’t the best part about living there. The best part was that at the edge of the green stood the public library. It was a dream come true — a library within walking distance of my home.
As a child, I read constantly. I read at the breakfast table, in the car on the way to school, as I walked, on the playground, while I washed the dinner dishes and often, instead of sleeping. Kids in my class used to ask me questions like how many pages were in Beezus and Ramona? (192.) And where did Anne of Green Gables live? (Avonlea, Prince Edward Island, Canada.) They might have been filling out their book reports with my answers or saying I was weird, but I didn’t mind.
My parents didn’t read. I mean, they knew how — they just weren’t the kind to curl up with a book. So both in my house and at school, I was an abnormality. One of those children who talks about Laura Ingalls Wilder as if she was still alive and a friend whom I spoke to daily.
In outward appearances, there was nothing special about the library in my hood in East Los Angeles. The building was harsh and cold. It was built with unadorned cinderblock, lit with fluorescent lighting, and filled with plastic chairs — the same color as Cookie Monster’s fur — that stacked in towers at the end of the night. This was not the libraries of television and movies, but it was mine.
I wasn’t weird or strange at the library. I was in my element. I found my people. Librarians happily answered my questions in hushed tones. Rows and rows of books waited for me, filled with new friends to be made. New stories to hear. And new communities, lands, and countries — different from my limited experience.
I relished the silence in that space. My parents fought for most of my childhood. There was screaming and crying and often just the sense of tension was the loudest sound of all.
At the library, I could hear my own heartbeat. My corduroy pants made a shuffle sound as I moved from one stack of books to another. The sound of pages being turned sent shivers up my spine, and everyone whispered as if the place was holy. For me, it was. It was a secret space set apart, seemingly just for me.
Sometimes it was too loud to hear God, to be reminded that he existed. But at the library, I felt like he was speaking to me, showing me a world beyond the walls of my house and the confines of the neighborhood I lived in. At the library, God gave me hope.
For the rest of my life, each time I moved, I’d find the closest library. In high school, my library was a mid-century modern dream with a loft. Walk up those stairs and not only would you find a dreamy tall Italian boy with a big nose, but you’d be able to rent foreign films and listen to jazz on vinyl via lender headphones. There were dark corners in that library where no one would bother you for hours, while you read Emerson and Thoreau and you’d forget what time it was until the librarian announced on the speaker that the library was closing in 10 minutes.
And in college, I could hardly believe there was a library that stayed open 24 hours a day. There I met with my professor to research the lives of Victorian women. I devoured literary articles on Mary Shelley, the Bronte sisters, and Jane Austen. Each time the door alarm would go off, signaling someone forgot to check out a book, my 80-year-old professor would shout out sarcastically, “Stop them! They are trying to learn!” This shtick never failed to get a laugh.
Now grown, married with a family of my own, I live two city blocks from a 100-year-old brick library. My own home is more peaceful than any of the places I lived growing up, but the library is still a magical place for me. It has become an extension of my home. It is a place where I can go to work, meet friends, listen to an author read, or bring my children to gather a large stack of books to bring home each week.
In libraries, I discovered many other readers who felt closer to the characters in books than other people, and somehow, that connected us to one another. I was no longer the odd bookish child but part of a world of bookish adults. Though I was first drawn to the library to find a space where I could be myself, I discovered the library is a place to find others like yourself. It is a place to find community.