For National Library Week: How Public Libraries Saved Me
Once, just after I graduated from college in Dublin, I lived in a studio flat at the top of a ramshackle house on the main street in a tiny town. There was, of course, no residential telephone. No TV.
But the town had a public library that was open a few evenings per week. In that mildew-y little space, I discovered that the librarian and I had similar reading tastes, and when certain new books came in, she sometimes reserved them for me on a hunch that I would like them.
Her hunches were never wrong.
At age 19, I moved to that town to start my first teaching job. I never told Mary, my librarian friend this, but often, as I leaned over the circulation desk chatting, the sound of my own voice—the adult, non-classroom version—startled me. Yes. Except for those library visits and my stop at the corner shop, my life was that isolated.
Still, isolation (I see now) had its perks. Without a TV or a record player, with little or no social life, the longer and denser the book, the better I liked it.
Nowadays, as I balance work and home and writing and a trillion digital distractions, I marvel at that small-town library's collection, and what a kid like me managed to read each week.
I devoured most of the works of Heinrich Böll, the German post-World War II novelist. I read fat biographies of Maud Gonne and Agatha Christie. Short story collections. Novellas. Novels galore. I wept when I read "The Well of Loneliness," a heartbreaking and previously banned love story about an illicit and banned lesbian relationship—a topic and a lifestyle that were taboo and illegal in 1980s Ireland.
Now I live three thousand miles away from that town where I tried to launch my adult life. My hair is beginning to grey, and, this year, after 30 years away from Ireland, I just became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
These days I'm thankful to have enough disposable income to purchase every book I want to read and will read for the rest of my life.
Financially, I no longer need to borrow books that other people have read before me, where someone has left light pencil marks in the margins or cookie crumbs in the crevices.
But being a library patron is never about the price tag. It's about being part of a virtual and often very real community of readers. It's about remembering who and what was there for you during the low and lonely times of your life.
I believe that our public libraries might be the last bastion of genuine bonum publicum or public good.
So I need and love my town library. I always did. I always will.