Libraries Are Not Sacred Spaces

In case you didn’t know, I’m moving to a new house — so, in the middle of packing up one house and cramming the stuff into a new one, I’m both a) busy and b) possibly without consistent Internet access. Which means it’s time for some guest bloggers to step up to the plate.

Third up is Maggie Carroll, who should probably be made a saint because she’s married to Rick Carroll and hasn’t yet strangled him with a lamp cord. Even beyond her sainthood, though, she’s a good writer and a compelling thinker, so when you’re done here hop on over to her site, Morphematics.

So. This is a guest post. On the Wendig’s blog. Should I feel like I’ve become a finalist for the Wendig Bowl? Should I secretly hope there’ll be Jello wrestling? Naked Jello wrestling? Should I, in my heart of hearts, lust after Dan O’Shea’s back hair? Should I print off the post listing me as a “winner” and add it to the Voodoo Shrine o’ Chuck I’m brewing in my closet under the stairs?

Probably not.

… There’s something wrong with me.

But we don’t have time to open that bag of cats right now. There’ll be fur and hissing and claws. And no one wants that.

At least, not this early in the day.

Onward, upward, and all that jazz.

Yeah. I Read.

Most of what I’ve been reading lately is ebooks. They’re easy to obtain. They’re easy to store. They’re easy to carry: thousands of books can fit on my 8GB micro chip that slides neatly into my smartphone. (I won’t mention which one here, since Wendig bows to Our Apple Overlords, and I’m with One Of The Other Guys.) Suffice to say, they’re convenient, they’re ridiculously portable, and you can get them from the convenience of your favourite online store, directly downloaded to your computer and for far cheaper than a hard copy would run you at Chapters or Barnes & Noble.

But ebooks lack something: physicality. And while that’s their whole point, there’s something infinitely satisfying about holding a physical object in your hands. It’s ephemeral. It’s visceral. The smell of pulp and glue. The whisper of page sliding on page. The weight of it. The angles. The edges.

Not strictly needing electricity to read it.

And I missed all these things. So I did something I haven’t done in years: I went to my nearest public library and got me a brand spankin’ new card.

My first order of business was to rack up with the novels. I’m permitted 18 at a time, so you bet your motherfuckin’ ass I borrowed 18, and put myself on a waitlist for about a dozen highly-popular others. I read fast and retain about 85% of the info given. I devoured that first batch and kept going back for more. Jim Butcher, Christopher Moore, Robert McCammon, Val McDermid, Dennis Lehane. A visit to the library quickly became a biweekly thing.

Enter the Kid

Somewhere along the way, Rick convinced me to take Jason, my nearly 5-year-old son, with me. I thought, sure. Why the fuck not? I made sure to get him his own library card when I got mine, so let’s go take out some books for him! That first visit was awesome. We got seven or eight books he really enjoyed as bedtime stories, and got to play with the toys in the kids’ library. All around, well worth the trouble of convincing him the library monster wouldn’t eat him. (Not really, he doesn’t have much in the way of imagination due to his disorder.)

But somehow, me saying “I’m going to the library; they have some books in for me” turned into “Okay dear. I’ll tell Jason to get his shoes.”

Now, I don’t really mind so much, but occasionally, he’s a handful. And the parent of a highly-energetic, ASD child does not have an easy time coming up against the stonewall disapproval of a librarian.

SHHHHH!

Last week, I stood at the counter to check out my books – I only rotated six out of my everlasting stack, so it wouldn’t take that long – and Jason really wanted to go downstairs to the children’s library to play with the blocks and choose a couple of books. I told him to wait for Mommy, I’d just be a minute. He ran out to the stairs anyway. So I called for him to come back. He was about, oh, 15 feet away, so I didn’t have to raise my voice all that much.

I still got a scowling librarian telling me to run after him instead of making noises with my mouth.

“We’ll hold your books here at the counter while you run after your son.”

I ignored her, called once more, and sure enough Jason came back. Grumbly, to be sure, but back he came. And I continued ignoring the frown of disapproval said librarian gave me.

Because, you see, there are two ways the scenario could have played out.

Scenario A: I do as she suggested, and chase after him. He immediately thinks it’s a game, like he does every time I’m forced to chase him, and starts running down the stairs while he laughs his ass off. I get frustrated because he’s a slippery little bugger, and far quicker than I am. I finally catch him at an estimated 2 or 3 minutes later. He’s in trouble for disobeying. I’m pissed off that I had to chase him for so long. He doesn’t get to go to the children’s library, because we don’t reward bad behaviour, and he doesn’t get his ice cream treat when he gets home.

Scenario B: I continue training him to respond to verbal commands, make him choose to come back instead of inadvertently turning it into the chasing game from hell’s seventh layer. I get my books. Jason gets his visit to the children’s library. And when we get home, he gets his ice cream.

Everyone’s happy.

Except, apparently, the librarian.

“But Mrs. Carroll, this is a library.”

So?

I hold books in esteem, but going to where they’re housed in mass quantity does not mean I view it as a sacred space. Unless I’m badly mistaken, no druid laid the cornerstones on the eve of Midsummer when all the stars were in the correct alignment in the heavens. No priest blessed and consecrated the steps leading up to the non-fiction section, and no technoshaman sent a benevolent organizational daemon into the online catalogue.

Books are not some distant god to worship. They’re friends. They’re occasionally enemies. They’re informative and entertaining and evocative and innovative. Or boring and confusing and disturbing. Hold them in esteem. Be fond of them.

Don’t fucking worship them.

And don’t worship libraries either.

Stepping into a library should invoke a sense of excitement, for all the worlds you’re about to visit. You shouldn’t live in fear of a scowly-faced crone with frizzy hair coming down on you with all the righteous wrath of the wronged (say that three times fast), finger to lips and a SHUSH ready to fire.

This is a library.

And I say again, so?

I wasn’t being obnoxious. I wasn’t yelling at the top of my lungs. I wasn’t even disturbing anyone else, because it had just opened and no one else was there. I called out to my son, to make sure he stayed where he needed to stay, in my line of sight.

And I got shushed.

Frowned at.

Chastised.

People wonder why no one goes to libraries as often as they used to. Well, this is it right here. Or part of it, anyway.

Libraries are too quiet. Too mysterious. Too sanctified and exalted in our heads. Can’t have the iPod up too loud – past like, 3 – because it’s dead quiet in the place and we don’t want to bother the person browsing the books three aisles down with the rap and the hip hop. Can’t go with a friend, because conversations above a whisper are too loud. Can’t bring your kids, because they stomp and laugh and need to be reminded to stay in one place.

I’m exaggerating, of course.

Or am I?

Libraries are not sacred spaces. They’re not houses of the hallowed. And they’re certainly not places of worship.

They’re places of knowledge and education and entertainment. Places where discourse and discussion and socialization could and should occur. Places to hold in high esteem, perhaps. And most definitely places to enjoy and have fun.

They’re not churches.

Can we stop treating them like they are already?