The train station where I start my day every morning has this spinner rack of free books for commuters.I believe paperbacks are the best format a book can come in—I love everything about them from the size to the art to the smell. And I’ve managed to snag some truly great novels from this spinner including two by Gene Wolfe(Book of the New Urth and Free Live Free), a big thick collection of Dashiel Hammett stories and Watership Down.
What I really love about the Spinner Rack of Destiny though is the random nature of the collection. There are amazing sci-fi and crime novels mixed in the with diet guides from the seventies, endless romance novels and political autobiographies from candidates who last ran a decade ago.
The spinner rack embodies the best kind of browsing: the books are completely uncategorized and of wildly varying quality. Exactly the kind of place you’re likely to find something unexpectedly wonderful.
I believe libraries are more than buildings. I believe they are living, breathing things, wide awake and filled with purpose. Next time you’re returning books, take a second to look around. You’ll see what I mean.
Your library’s pulse will be there beneath your feet. I promise. You’ll feel its mind percolating in the hive of activities, talks and events running through its halls. Its beating heart can be felt as you navigate your way through the stacks in search of exactly the right Dewey decimal number. Its memories lay impressed like gravestone etchings on the fading date stamps at the back of every musty hardbound book.
Libraries are alive — growing adapting and dreaming side by side with the patrons and communities they serve.
And they do serve us: faithfully, without rest, and always free of charge. They patiently answer our questions and relentlessly fuel our imaginations.
But while libraries are living creatures, they are also public institutions. And like all public institutions they face the brick walls of bureaucracy, the fickle sway of public opinion and the political gamesmanship of our leaders.
Lately, the usefulness of our libraries seems to be a question floating in the air. Few come right out and say it, but there’s a growing sentiment in some quarters that our libraries’ best days are behind them. That perhaps our tax dollars might be better spent elsewhere. That we should give up on these generous creatures and allow them to go extinct.
I believe the opposite. But this piece isn’t going to be a list of all the reasons libraries should be counted among our most valuable public resources. You can find those arguments in enough places already.
Instead, I just want to talk about what libraries have meant to me. And so here, in chronological order are some of the libraries that have made an impact on my life:
The Lindsay Public Library
My first. And the one that taught me the endless adventures that can be found in the stacks. Like many libraries in North America, it’s actually a combination of two buildings. One a beautiful old victorian structure featuring roman columns, the other a sixties-era modernist government thing made from large windows and tall ceilings.
My mother would bring me here regularly and by seven-years-old I was spending a lot of spare time here alone with no one to keep me company except the librarian who always seemed patient and encouraged my reading.
The children’s department had two Commodore PET computers with green monochrome monitors which you were allowed to play on for a half hour at a time. The computers weren’t really capable of much, but they did have a few text adventure games, including one I loved where you had to hunt down Dracula before he attacked too many of the townsfolk. It was amazing.
This is the library where I first came into contact with Dewey decimal sections 100–130, an area I feel is often both the most neglected and interesting.
It tends to be neglected simply because it’s close to the beginning of the system, and ends up being placed in some out of the way edge of the collection. It’s interesting because a lot of a library’s more esoteric and strange books end up here, where computer science and futurism bumps up again the occult and supernatural.
The is the section where I was first exposed to Usborne publishing’s fantastic Mysterious World collection, where I found countless pictures of futuristic cities and juggernaut space vehicles and where I terrified myself half to death reading a book about Witchcraft that had a long section devoted to the real case the exorcist had been based on.
That book, and few others I found in those stacks haunted my young mind. But in a good way. Maybe that sounds strange to some people, but others out there know what I’m talking about. There are times when it’s good to let a book leave a scar. Especially when you’re small. It makes the world feel strange, wild and beyond knowing. Which is exactly what some books — especially some children’s books — are for.
The Whitby Public Library
I’ll be honest: this library wasn’t the greatest. But like many things when you’re a teenager, you make the most of what you’re given.
This was my main library through high school. And while we never quite fell in love, we had a very nice longterm relationship. Granted this was due to circumstance rather than any sort of real affinity for one another. It was a bit of an arranged marriage really. But sometimes those marriages work quite well in spite of themselves. It’s worth noting that I did some significant cheating with my nicely stocked school library which featured a full set of Richard Cavendish’s Man, Myth and Magic.
Since I left, the town of Whitby has gone on to demolish this building and replace it with a state of the art facility straight out of some architectural magazine. But that wasn’t the library I knew. The library I knew was another product of sixties government modernism. Large plate glass windows with dust bunnies and spider webs accumulating in the corners, worn-through carpeting and a faint smell of mold.
As a teenager I was terrible student and frequently skipped school to go spend time by myself in the reading room, surrounded mostly by older men who had come to read the newspaper. I remember one dark and rainy afternoon spent there reading Oliver Sacks’ the Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.
There was nothing too remarkable about the afternoon. But something about it has stuck with me: the silence of the reading room punctuated by the occasional page turn of a newspaper. The sound of rain dancing on the roof.
It holds over 4.5 million books and the stacks are open very late. In fact they used to be open 24 hours a day until some students were busted have sex in some out-of-the-way areas.
The building is a massive brutalist structure in the shape of a peacock, or perhaps a dinosaur. It lies at the heart of the University’s downtown campus rising from the ground like some eruption from a dystopic fever dream. To get into the main stacks you need to show your university ID card and ride a Blade Runner-esque elevator to one of the upper floors.
This library is where I perfected my browsing technique of wandering through the stacks with no sense of what subject I happened to be in, simply stopping at whatever book happened to catch my eye. It proved quite a mind-expanding technique, and over the course of my time with this library I experimented with all sorts of variations on this: stopping every five minutes then checking the top shelf. Stopping between songs while listening to the INXS album kick then pulling out a book with my foot. It sounds random and it is, but I have discovered many books using this technique including Zen and the Art of Archery, The Wine of Youth by John Fante, Hearths of Darkness (an excellent study of how the Family is represented in Horror films) and An Assassin’s Diary by Arthur Bremer which is an odd, thin diary by the real-life assassin of Alabama Governor George Wallace.
This was a small, weird and likely haunted place that seemed less like a library and more like the refuge of a vampire.The librarians gave off the odd feeling that they might have lived there. The building had the look of a small victorian church, and even featured an ornate fountain outside complete with a basin for horses to drink from.
The fiction stacks were arranged in a long room with a mezzanine surrounding it. This upper level held biographies and history books. Hunting through this section could be fascinating. For some reason the library had a lot of volumes from the seventies and early eighties that I have never seen anywhere else. It’s as though they had a significant budget for a few short years and then had been left with a small allowance ever since.
This library is where I first encountered all three volumes of Michael Moorcock’s strange and psychedelic saga The Dancers at the End of Time. I bring this up because running into Moorcock’s books in any library is a shamefully rare occurrence. He seems to have been stuck into that unfortunate cadre of writers that libraries for one reason or another rarely carry. In this group you’ll find (or rather won’t find) authors such as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and the Strugatsky Brothers. Why are they so rarely stocked by libraries? I have no idea. I can only assume there is some kind of left-over prejudice against pulp fantasy and science fiction authors.
My current library, and without a doubt the peak of my library experiences so far.
I think they won me over when I realized they were perfectly willing to order a book on my behalf to add to their collection. They have done this on multiple occasions without blinking an eye. Books they have ordered for me have included Super Gods by Grant Morrison and a study of John Carpenter’s They Live.
In most cases the way that science fiction is separated out from the rest of the fiction stacks has always kind of annoyed me. But at this library, the vast long wall filled with thousands of sci-fi volumes feels less like a case of genre ghettoization and more like being let into a focused private collection.
My favorite part of this library though might not be the collection. Instead I think it’s the events the library stages on a nearly daily basis. Whether it’s a visiting author, a Star Wars festival or a job fair, the library has worked to transform itself from a repository of books into a truly invaluable community resource.
In short, it’s a living breathing place. As every library on this list is. And each of them deserves our protection, our gratitude and even our love.