I’ve talked about it off and on in interviews and the like, but I cannot stress how big of an influence libraries have had on me. I still remember going into my first one as a kid. It was built into a former residence in a small Illinois town, the librarian still lived above it, and it was magic. Rooms chock full of shelves, a lovely, open front room with homey windows and dark wood, just the stuff of story books. The very first book I ever was allowed to take home was There’s a Nightmare in my Closet, and even though I already knew the plot, the thought of plucking it from a shelf (it was misplaced in the adult shelves so that made it even more important-seeming) and taking it home all by myself was a beautiful feeling. I went on to do the summer reading programs there, get vacation packets for long car trips there, I was even able to check out puppets there, something that I’m sure fed my love of the art form early on.
My mom made a point of taking me to the library any time I was interested in something, and I give her a lot of credit for my voracious love of reading today. After every Reading Rainbow episode we made a list of titles to go searching for. Anything that I wasn’t allowed to buy on the scholastic book forms we put on the library list. There were times during the summer when we were there every other day. I was encouraged to read anything that took my fancy, although she quickly had to put a cap on the number of titles i could get at one time (I may still have problems with limiting my TBR pile…).
That was also the library where I was accidentally locked in during the librarian’s lunch hour.The children’s room was in the very back of the place, time got away, and there I was with my mother, completely panicked that I’d never get home again…for the first five minutes, until I realized that I had All. The. Books. to myself (even if I had to share with my mother). I have a vague recollection of compiling a massive stack in the amount of time it took for her to fetch the librarian’s niece, convince her that we weren’t hiding downstairs on purpose, and get her to fetch her aunt so she could let us out.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to check out the half-room of books I’d frantically hoarded. I’m pretty sure I had to put most of them back, which ironically didn’t propel me into a career as a librarian, though it probably should have.
When I was approaching ten, we moved to a different state. One of the first things my Mom did was take us to the library, which was now in walking distance. It was bigger, more modern, and mind-blowing to me. If my first library had been homespun magic, this was something straight from outer space. I quickly was encouraged to participate in different groups and programs. Some were awesome, like when a group of us as elementary-school kids made a giant, paper mache statue of Arthur (the Aardvark, before he became a PBS television star). Others, like a teen group that was supposed to discuss titles up for consideration for some title or another, quickly made me realize that I just wasn’t into the same type of books that others in my age group were. This was the age of problem literature and I wasn’t ready to spend my summer plowing through a stack of depressing titles. There was also an after school group that turned out to be mostly younger kids, but I found that I liked helping out and getting a younger perspective on things. While I never went into teaching, I’ve done workshops to kids and teens through the years about setting goals, getting creative, theatre, all sorts of things, and it’s something I really enjoy. I can’t help but think that was the precursor to that, the link between me being affected by books and the arts and me wanting to affect others, in turn.
I met authors at that library, too. Steven Kellogg, Nancy Carlson, Gary Paulson, plus storytelling groups, improv groups, symphony groups…I was exposed to an insane amount of art for a small town in that place, all sorts of people and opportunities that got my brain working, that got me wondering and interested in so many, many things.
There’s more to a library than books and shelves and computers and the like, though. I think sometimes it’s really easy to neglect the people behind the counters, especially now that everything is pretty automated (I checked out a stack of books the other day and all I had to was sit them by a sensor and the computer automatically had logged the entire stack. It was mind-blowing and I somehow resisted the temptation to grab every single book in the library to play with this new toy).
I was incredibly lucky to have an amazing group of librarians around me through my pre-teen and teenage years. There was a reference librarian in particular, as well as the actual library director, who were just incredible. Both always seemed to make time to ask what I was reading, to discuss school projects that were frustrating me, to encourage my interests like music and puppetry. In a world where it’s not always easy for a kid to ask an adult for input, especially about off-the-cuff stuff, I was made to feel welcome, even important. I can’t even tell you how huge of a deal this was at the time. I was pointed to titles I may not have found on my own, and encouraged as I grew up and started making the transition from doing shows in high school to actually working in theatre and doing my own projects.
The reference librarian was right there when I needed material for a giant project on Dumas and pointed out titles I might be into when I really got into the classics in high school (Thank you, Wishbone. I shall never be ashamed of loving you). Where some of my relatives and friends looked down on my insane love of the Star Wars books (before it was officially known as the EU), in those walls, my obsessive devouring of sci-fi , epic fantasy, and space opera was encouraged – I was even introduced to the Archie Goodwin strips and graphic novels there, and I don’t know that I would have found them on my own. I’d always had a passing interest in comics, but the only people I knew who read them were dudes. That simple recommendation changed everything. Throughout the years, whether I was dealing with outright bullying or just the feeling of never fitting in, I was welcomed in those walls. I had a place I belonged to. I had whole worlds I belonged to within the millions of pages housed there.
The director was right there pointing out that theatres I’d gotten work at were amazing, even if I didn’t get the internship with Henson I’d applied for. He was right there giving me and my folks suggestions of places I could look at for work when I finally left the area.
And the thing was, I always felt like the staff there were honestly interested, even down to those leading the after school groups who didn’t always know what to make of my quirkiness. Real conversations were had, and I can’t even imagine how obnoxious I had the possibility to be at that age.
The director in question also had an interest in storytelling and had an insane gift for public speaking. On Marin Luther King Jr. Day he took part in a program by delivering the famous I Have a Dream speech, and it was incredible. He was instrumental in getting in a lot of various speakers and performers – a lot of the people who quietly inspired me to keep on the path I was walking.
There’s one incident in particular I remember. The library had gotten in a storyteller to visit the schools – I was a senior in high school at the time, I believe. We were gathered in the high school library/media center/place I crashed with friends before classes everyday, anyway. The speaker was running late,though, and my English class was neck-deep in a section of public speaking. I’d done a presentation of a kid’s book recently (The second of the Froggy books – I’d done Froggy Gets Dressed the year before and although my interpretation ripped a little off from PBS, it was still amusing, even if I do say so, myself). At some point those around me were bored enough to suggest I reprise my speech project, and even the teacher (She of the Germ of the Wild Class) didn’t seem to be against it. I wasn’t really sure if people were sincere enough, but I’ve always been a ham and it got to the point where the suggestions were loud enough that I couldn’t brush them off, so at some point I found myself plunked in front of the microphone reserved for the guest speaker.
It was going well enough for what it was, though mid-way through I happened to look over and there was a very confused guest speaker…and the library director. Mortification was tame compared to what I was feeling, and I was sure I was going to get reamed out/get a talking to from my parents/get banned from the library because of it. He was amused, though, and never said a word about it, afterward. In fact, he was even more helpful after the fact in mentioning different things I might want to look into.
Without that safe space, without that encouragement, I don’t know that I’d be the curious, strong-willed,
shameless person I am today. I still go to the library a lot, and I try to talk to the librarians, and other regular patrons. I still try to get involved in classes and events if I’m able to. Just because I’m older doesn’t mean I can’t take an interest in the world around me, especially in a community sense. Besides, it’s fun to watch the kids and teens bustle around me half the time, going through the stacks, complaining about homework, and all the rest. It makes me smile and remember how much of an effect such a magical institution has had on me. I mean, think about it. Where else can you go and operate on such a trust-based system? Where else can you legally just take things that are there only for your benefit, at no cost as long as you give them back on time? Where else can you have such a network of support, answers for the asking? Libraries are magic, and you’ll never, ever convince me otherwise.