The Guardian recently encouraged readers to submit tribute to their favorite library in the form of a love letter. The Guardian also published an interview with rock star author Neil Gaiman where he professes his love for libraries and the impact these places had on him as a child. In response to the Guardian’s prompting, I have written my own quasi-love letter to the libraries of my childhood. It may not sound like a love letter, as I am not big on romance, but it comes from my heart.
When I look back on my history with libraries, there are four that come to mind: the McAllen Public Library, the school library at Brown Junior High, the school library at South Texas High School for Health Professions, and the library at the University of Texas-Pan American. I had very different relationships with all four of these libraries, but all had an important impact in who I am today.
I grew up in the 1980’s along the Texas-Mexico border in Hidalgo County, one of the poorest areas of the US. We had no cable, no video games (anyone remember Atari?), no vacations to Disneyland, no dance classes, and no computer, but we had a library. By no means was I starving and I always had a roof over my head, but poverty in the US is a subjective condition. I could not go to the mall and spend money on clothes or corndogs, but I could go to the library and pick out books for free. This was a time before a good bookstore came to McAllen, but even if there had been one we would not have had the money to go to buy books in there anyway.
My mother would take my sisters and me to the McAllen Public Library a few times per month to pick out books. I would immediately make a beeline for the juvenile section, shamelessly judge a book by its cover, and sit in a corner reading voraciously. I read everything from biographies of American presidents to picture books to all of Beverly Cleary’s works. I still remember the smell of the pages, the coolness of the air conditioning as I walked in (we had no AC at home), and the imperial silence inside the building. I did not feel bad that I had no money like I did at the mall or the movie theatre or the Diary Queen, because I did not need money to enjoy the library. The McAllen Public Library provided me a safe space of knowledge and dignity. It cultivated a love of the equalizing power of books in my young and impressionable mind. There was nothing between me and the books filled with new worlds waiting to be explored. I am forever grateful.
If the McAllen Public Library planted the seed for my love of books, the Brown Junior High School library watered and nurtured it so it grew into a huge tree with many branches and firm roots. I discovered some of my favorite authors here, including John Steinbeck, Lois Duncan, Richard Peck, and Paul Zindel. I also learned to diversify my literary tastes in this library. I could read East of Eden or The Chocolate War and then plunge into a Sweet Valley High book. The library was located in the center of the school in a lower level surrounded by glass walls, so that you could look down into it from the main halls. The library was the heart center of the school, creating an architectural metaphor that impacted the way I felt about literature for the rest of my life.
In addition to providing me with a wealth of books for entertainment and school-related research, the library at my high school was my happy place. I was a nerd. I was not popular. When I wanted to escape the complex social dynamics of high school, I escaped to the library to read a book. It was OK to sit alone in the library, unlike the cafeteria or the student lounge. I also discovered the library was a safe place to test boundaries. I read VC Andrews and other forbidden gems here.
My relationship with my library in college was strictly business. I spent hours studying for exams or working on research for my classes. This was in the mid-90’s when “research” at that level was transitioning from photocopying articles in the archives to online-based searches. I still enjoyed the coolness, the smell, and that refined aura that the library emitted, but I was not as easy to impress by then. I was reading a lot of Patricia Cornwell or anything with the Oprah stamp of approval during that time, as well as Mexican literature as part of my desire to stick to my roots, but by then I would go to bookstores and purchase the books instead of borrowing them from the library. Books became a status symbol for me, so I abandoned the library for the bookstore in my early adulthood.
Within the last three years, I returned to libraries, particularly the Cody Branch Library in San Antonio and the Monteverde Friends Library in Costa Rica, to impart the same love for the institution to my children. I felt like the wayward prodigal daughter returning home. And you know what? The library did not judge me. It welcomed me back with open arms.
What would you say to your favorite library? Let me know in the comments!
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