Coasting Along: A Writer’s Journey Library Havens

Libraries have always been a haven of peace for me. My first experience with a library was going to visit the Bookmobile. My Mother, Sister, and I walked the mile or two to the small shopping center where the movie theater was. Parked on the street next to the craft shop and the dime store, was the great big green bookmobile. I remember climbing up the steps and seeing the shelves of books for the first time. There were little benches to sit on, but as I recall, I sat on the floor near the books that had a big X marked on the book spine. The X indicated a children’s book.

The librarian in the bookmobile showed us where to find books, and explained that the fiction books were arranged by the author’s last name. She may have said something about the Dewey Decimal System, but I don’t recall. Eventually I would learn that system, as well as others systems. I would spent countless hours in libraries everywhere I went and in every town I visited. That day, I got my very first library card. I signed my name, maybe for the first time, for when else would I have had to do that?  I discovered that day that I could borrow books to take home to read. My Mother read to us regularly, but this meant I would get to choose books on my own, take them home, and read them.  It was pretty exciting.

That first experience must have happened in March in the early 1950s because I remember that visit to the bookmobile being connected to yo yos. March used to be YoYo Month. Yoyos and kites were the big thing to do in March, and I recall watching a yoyo demonstration that day too. It was the first time I had ever watched anyone do Around the World with a yoyo.  I remember the colorful wooden yoyo I got, and also remember trying to use it. It took a while, but I did manage to get okay with it.

We went to the bookmobile until the first branch library was built witin walking distance to our home. Then I would walk to the Ruth Bach Library on a regular basis. It was a haven for me; a place where I could spend hours browing through books, reading, doing my homework, or just wandering through some world that existed between the pages of some book a writer had written. It was magical for me, and fed my imagination.

As I got older, the library was a place I could go on my own. I’d spend time with my friends. “We’re going to the library” was a favorite explanation for getting out of the house. Who could fault it?  I’m sure my parents knew that though we started out at the library, we often ended up at the soda fountain across the street having french fries and cherry cokes, and talking. Endless hours of talking to one another. About our lives, our dreams, our hopes, and our fears. And then, we’d go back to the library where in the privacy of our thoughts, we could be anywhere we wished. We could be anyone we wanted.

Libraries fueled my passions. They are where my studies began. Libraries are where I have learned more than I ever learned in a classroom. Libraries are where I discovered what really mattered to me. Libraries are where I climbed down the rabbit holes of exploration, science, fantasy, adventure, metaphysics, religions, mystery, science, culture, and history. Libraries held the key to learning about what I would later explore more deeply in life.

My first real job was in a library–the downtown main branch of the Long Beach Public Library. It was a place that smelled of old books soaked in tobacco smoke from the elderly patrons who devoured library books they took back to their rooms in residential hotels in the old downtown. The elderly patrons as well as the books they borrowed, reeked of cigarette smoke, and I was told I wasn’t allowed to chat with the patrons. What idiocy that was. Now I realize that the patrons’ only contact was often with the librarians and clerks who helped them check books in and out. Nowadays, the odor of tobacco is no longer something you’d find in most libraries. Those were different days. While working for the library, I also worked at the Belmont Shore Branch of the library. That was pleasure for I got to look out on Alamitos Bay while I worked. The branch library was free of the static, staid feel of the main branch.

Other library experiences were much more interesting. The library at Cal. State Dominguez Hills was a brand new library. It is where I discovered the other numbering system, or at least one of the other. It was a place where I first learned to study at a writing table. Before this, I would read in bed or at the kitchen table. Finding space for studying and reading in the library was almost as precious to me as finding the books. Once I discovered the pleasure and privacy and space of a library, I made it my business to spend as much time in them as possible.

Libraries are places where no one disturbs you. Well most of the time anyway. Sometimes in a library you can meet some pretty interesting people. I recall my husband telling me about a man who struck up a conversation with him at Pasadena’s main branch library. He said, “He seemed really interesting to me until he told me he was an alien from another planet.”  I’ve actually made new friends in libraries. Some the librarians and others, people like me who use the library as their own office and private safe space.

Libraries serve many functions. I taught classes in the annex rooms of the library at Cal. State Long Beach. That was fun. I discovered that a lot of people are intimidated by libraries, so it was fun to take students out of the classroom into the library to show them how to use them to find what they were looking for. To break the code, or help unlock new doors. It really was fun.

I learned about carrells at CSULB. As a graduate student and GA, I was given my own carrell. It was a place I could put papers, books, and lock myself in. I could lock it up when I left, and it was a magical little place where only I could go and think or read or write. I had my own key, and perhaps it was the first time I ever understood the idea about having a room of your own. A much treasured experience.

Libraries are full of ideas to be discovered. They are places where some wonderful experiences happen. I met my husband in a library. We spent hours together in libraries, studying, reading, writing, and simply being together. I remember sitting in the University of Connecticutt’s Library in Hartford watching the snow start to fall. The pond outside the library window was home to a family of ducks. I watched all day as their pond got smaller and smaller. The pond was icing over as the snow fell. By late afternoon the pond was nearly frozen solid. When we left the library, we had to make our way through huge banks of snow to find our car. Somehow, despite the icy roads and huge drifts of snow everywhere, we made it home that day. The memory remains.

At that same library I read the ship logs that had lists of passengers who’d arrive to the East Coast ports. I also read the entire works of Laura Engals Wilder–the Little House on the Prairie books of pioneers going west.I also read Merriweather Lewis’ journals of the Lewis and Clark expeditions in the library that winter. While living in Pasadena, California, I spent hours at the Cal Tech Library, and there I read the theses and dissertations of scientists who had done their work at the same time as Albert Einstein in the early 1900s. The topics were the same, and the connection of the place–the library, the covered walkways and quiet marble floored hallways, echoed of all those who had walked the same halls while doing their amazing work and living their amazing lives.

Libraries are places where ideas are born as well as places where we can read about what others dream. When the large data bases started taking over for the card catalogue, I had to learn how to use the different data bases. I had to learn because I had to teach others to use them. At first, before the databases were as well integrated as they now are, each base thought differently. In order to figure out how to get to what you needed, you had to figure out how the person who programmed the computer base thought. It was interesting, and probably helped my brain grow some new gray matter. And then one day, the card catalogue disappeared. My fingers could no longer work their way throught the paper cards to find information. I had to communicate with a computer, and that changed everything.

From the first automated check out system I learned in the summer of 1964, until today, the systems have changed ceaselessly. Now we can search for information more easliy in most cases. But I still love to wander through the stacks of the libraries. Love to pick up books and leaf through them to see what captures my attention. I love searching through books, reading deeper and deeper into a subject or into a story, finding out more. Like David Copperfield, I always want more. And libraries give me more of what I love.




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