The West Long Branch public library still holds a large and powerful place in my memory even though I haven’t visited there in twenty years at least. My mother began taking my sisters and me there before we could properly read. Beginning during the summer mornings of 1976, we would troop in, four girls under the age of eight in our flip-flops and long t-shirts, which hid our matching star-spangled bathing suits.
Time was always made for a visit to the library, and was usually sandwiched between swimming lessons at the local college and our arrival at the beach, where the books we had chosen made the post-lunch half hour during which we were not allowed to swim pass more quickly. It’s probably the reason why I will always equate Beezus and Ramona and Encyclopedia Brown with damp beach towels and the smell of Coppertone.
Our town library had a paltry selection of children’s and young adult books, but I didn’t know it at the time. Still, selecting a book for myself seemed an overwhelming task. Standing before that wall of books – no teacher dictating the order of my basal readers, no parents nudging me in a certain direction, no advice from my older sister – what was a girl with not much reading experience to do?
Even in those early days of my reading career, there was something empowering about choosing a book on my own, with no one guiding me. Literary taste is deeply personal, but how does one know her taste unless she begins to choose for herself? If not for one of those summer visits to the library, I would never have befriended the Native American boy from Little Wolf and the Thunder Stick, the first book that taught me, that entertained me, that ignited a fire in my imagination.
This is why libraries still matter.
In this digital age, when information is accessed by the touch of a button at a desk, on a lap or in one’s palm, I continue to have a reverence for libraries. There is no equal to the experience of pulling at the spine of some mysterious book with an index finger, sliding it off the shelf, and perhaps making a discovery of a new world.
I believe in old-fashioned, brick and mortar, under-funded and overlooked, musty, dusty libraries, with worn but comfortable furniture that has seen much better days. Libraries that are the home to books that are reinforced with tape on their spines and smell a little bit like my attic; and books that have cards in pockets in the back with hand-stamped dates stretching back a decade or two. Libraries that have windows that let in the summer sun, which inches its way across a scarred and battered table while I become acquainted with some new friends in the pages of my latest selection – at least until my mother calls me and it’s time to go.