An Ode to Librarians: Books Saved My Life
When I was twenty-four years old, I was giving my grandmother a tour of my law school on the eve of graduation. Like most Ivy League schools, it had an impressive library of law books housed in a soaring gothic tower. As I stood there in my midriff tee and booty shorts, my grandmother’s eyes traced the stacks of books, tearing up.
She looked at me and said that when she’d escaped from the plantation in Shubuta, Mississippi where she’d been born into a sharecropping family, she remembers encountering her first library in New York. She said she remembers looking around the dusty stacks, this would have been in nineteen thirty-five or so, and realizing that she’d never known that there were that many books in the world.
I have no idea how many books there were in the world in nineteen thirty-five, nor how many there were in that branch library in Albany, New York where they’d migrated. Or even how many millions live on virtual shelves now, but each and every last one of them is important to someone.
Libraries saved my life. I didn’t grow up under the thumb of the Jim Crow south, like my grandmother. I was raised in nineteen seventies Brooklyn instead. While the outer world was vibrant with color, and hippies and free love, my own world was dark.
My parents were divorced. My father given over to compulsive gambling. My mother in the beginnings of her downward spiraling alcoholism. My solace was threefold. I spent my week mostly with my grandmothers, who nurtured me the best they could. My other refuge was books. Most of which came from the Brooklyn Public Library.
It was and still is this Art Moderne building on Grand Army Plaza. We’d drive from our house in East New York, down Eastern Parkway, and at the end was this huge building, that for me, had all the books in the world.
My earliest memories were of my mother dropping me off at six or seven, and telling me to get something to read. The choices were overwhelming. Fortunately, librarians came to my aid.
They asked me what I liked and steered me toward books that I may enjoy. I borrowed many books, returning few on time because I rarely had someone to take me back.
We moved a lot, but the one thing that I’d do first, especially at ten when I could get around on my own, was to get a library card. I’d take myself to the local branch, befriend the librarian, and get recommendations.
Many allowed me to exceed the borrow limit. None chastised me when my fines were so high I couldn’t borrow more books. They’d most often forgive them and give me more books.
I want to thank each and every librarian of you for what you do. There are no doubt countless children like me, growing up in chaotic families who need to escape one minute, or one hour, or one day into a fictional world without limits, or boundaries, or judgment.