Saturday, April 2, 1994

Libraries and Community

Every year or so I seem to find myself on a library binge. One spring break in college I went to Vancouver, 900 miles away from my home in the Bay Area, to search for information on Ontario poltiics for the paper that would complete my BA degree. I found lots of information, but never wrote the paper. Several years ago, while unemployed, I visited six or seven local libraries searching out folk music I hadn't heard before. Now I'm working on my paper again with a different topic, and I've been going from library to library searching for information.

There's something shared about a library. Bookstores are sanitary places, full of virgin pulp straight from the letterpresses. Each book is like a medicine capsule, beckoning with its brightly colored exterior, yet ultimately sterile.

Libraries are different. Each time you take a book down from a library shelf, you share an experience with the patrons who came before and will come after. Pulling down that book is a ritual experience -- entering into a shared community with the others who've read it.

Of course, we all know the horror stories of anti-social acts in our shared community. We've all had the experience of finding an needed book unreadable -- pages ripped out, drenched in coffee or soda, or covered with meaningless underlines or distracting streaks of color. But there is also the joy of finding a pointed comment on a post-it or a lightly-penciled note explaining a difficult passage. Like the difference between graffiti and a mural, the difference is in the author's intent and the reaction sought from the audience.

And occasionally there is a scrap or note not intended for the community, but left in the book accidentally, or incidentally. Once, in an old computer programming book, I found a teletype printout from ancient printers that have been shut down for years. Just the worn type on the green-bar paper brought back memories of my own experiences with the old minicomputer.

In a book on downtown development from the San Jose State University Library, I came across a note: the phone number of the Marin County Board of Supervisors, left on a folded sheet of spiral-bound notebook paper. Like an amateur detective, one's mind races to fill in the blanks. Why Marin County, 70 miles from San Jose? A feminine hand. A section of paper torn out at the bottom, as if to be used in another note elsewhere. There aren't enough clues to this mystery to begin to solve it. But new mysteries are available on every shelf.

These experiences are usually ephemeral. One, though, has stayed with me. While researching the French Revolution for a history class, I discovered two different notes, in two different books, written in the same hand. I knew that I was following in the footsteps of some prior student, likely from the same class in some previous year. It's not really so surprising -- after all, class projects change little from year to year. Nonetheless, it made an impresson. To go into a building with a million volumes and pick two with the same history is a powerful experience, however obvious the explanation. It underscored for me the shared quality of libraries.

Often libraries seem the most alone of places -- forbidden to speak, one daydreams quietly as one slips among the stacks. But other hands have traveled before us. City planners and architects talk about creating community, but the anonymous forebears whose traces I find in books have created as much community as any town square or public market.

Postscript (January, 1998): It must not have occurred to me to discuss used bookstores. Used books have more character than new books, but the number of previous readers is much smaller than in a library, and -- what with inscriptions and so on -- much less anonymous. And occasionally they're not anonymous at all. If Shirley Daffin is out there, searching the web for her name, she'll remember purchasing a copy of Beautiful Crescent: A History of New Orleans at Crescent City Books, 204 Chartres St., New Orleans, on May 20, 1995 at 3:10pm. The total cost was $20.70 and she paid with her Mastercard, the number of which is on the slip left in the book. I guess it's a good thing that the expiration date has passed.

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