I believe in the power of libraries, big and small. I grew up in Vestal, New York where my family moved from Mumbai when I was three years old. Over the years, a lot of things changed – English, not Marathi became my preferred language; peanut butter replaced chutney; individualism trumped community. But despite my best efforts to become American, I was still different from the other children. While I adjusted to a welcoming but foreign country, I found refuge in one place – the Vestal Public Library.
Children decorated their area in the library with construction paper chains, finger paintings and paper murals. The primary-color happiness of this section imbued me with a sense of belonging. I loved the smell of pledge that made the wooden shelves shine. I loved the low chairs and the books kept at eye level. Sandwiched between the children’s section and the adult section was the slightly hidden young adult section that seemed to reflect the confusion of the age itself. I spent a lot of time there, running my index finger over the books’ binding, knowing that the worlds contained within were mine for the opening. The library was a place where kindly, bright-eyed librarians helped me through a confusing, identity-twisting adolescence.
After a particularly difficult day in elementary school, my Mom and I went to the library and I hid myself in the farthest corner by the microfilm section. The tears welled in my eyes and when I heard the sound of approaching footsteps I buried my face into my backpack. “Here,” a soft, shaky voice said, “You’ll like this one.” The man was quite old, probably in his late eighties, with watery blue eyes and paper-thin skin. He smiled and slowly shuffled away. The book was called Superfudge by Judy Blume—the story of Peter and his brother Fudge. Peter’s life resembled mine in so many ways, I couldn’t help but smile. It was then when I came to the realization that it wasn’t my Indian background that made elementary school difficult, everyone else was in the same boat too. The sense of relief overwhelmed me. I never saw the old man again, but I still remember him, especially when I see a sullen child in my library branch.
As books are getting cheaper to buy (used on Amazon) and Podcasts begin to rival novels, I prefer to check books out of the library. There is something protective and accessible about libraries, something satisfying about requesting a book and actually waiting a while for it to reach your hands. In a culture driven by the loudness of youth, I respect the quiet wisdom of the library. I seek libraries out wherever I am in the world. In Mumbai, I discovered a library the size of a closet with torn, tattered books and an “honor” system. In Blue Hill, Maine, the library is in a lovely brick building with windows overlooking leafy trees. In New York City, where I now live, the library provides a welcome retreat from the clamor and aggression of the streets. The Vestal Public Library has replaced its card catalog with computers, but its spirit is unchanged. It is a place to discover, to hide, to share, to laugh, to learn, to live, to accept.
The library is still a place of solace for many people. For children, for parents, for the elderly, and for immigrants like myself. In the library we are equal. In the library, we are safe. This I believe.
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