We were blissfully unaware of it until Monday morning when Eric brought in the local paper. I was down the basement, as I am every morning from five a.m. to seven-thirty, wrapping books and listening to the radio. I love this time of day -- there’s just me, the orders, the credit card machine, the bubble wrap and the radio. I wrap, think, sing, dance a little and generally enjoy the solitude. It’s rare to have it interrupted, so when Eric hollered for me to come up I took the stairs at breakneck speed
Silently he held up the paper. The headline screamed “Sprinkler Floods Library.” One look and the wail of anguish was proportional to the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria. Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo! Say it isn't true!
But it WAS true. A frozen sprinkler in the attic thawed and spontaneously let loose in the adult fiction section drenching the floor with four inches of standing water. Dedicated staffers showed up Saturday night and worked into the wee hours of Sunday morning to save what books they could. A trailer was quickly dispatched from a moving company and the books piled onto it to be taken away and freeze dried. Of course some were lost, but the vast majority may well be saved. And best of all, the Grand Opening would still take place. It was okay, it would be okay. But the potential loss still unnerved me.
The night of the sneak preview it poured rain, but I dressed up as the occasion warranted in understated black topped off with the drop-dead vintage Hattie Carnegie gold choker I got for Christmas. Inside it was a gathering of the tribal leaders -- a party with books. But I barely noticed even the people I knew. I am not even going to try to describe the building. Just think contemporary chic without the hard edges. Just think dazzling.
I couldn’t help but compare it to my first visit there back in the early 70’s. Newly married and fresh from the big city, I was totally underwhelmed. But over the years it got better and better -- so much better that the ALA deemed it best in the nation a few years back. And now it is housed in an architectural wonder that far surpasses the new replacement library in my home town. (Think cell block. Think ugly.) As I stood there ruminating on that I recalled a conversation I had not long ago with an educated woman who actually said to me, “I think libraries are an anachronism. Who needs them? You can get on amazon.com and order anything you want.”
Yes, you can. Those of us who are fortunate enough to indulge can indeed do that. But not everyone has the discretionary income to order up books like Happy Meals. Libraries are a democracy, the one true equalizer sharing their wonders with everyone for the price of a small card. We need libraries. We need to see before our own eyes the depth and breadth of our culture. No, of course not everything humankind has produced is there -- there’s a decided shortage of papyri and incunabula -- but what is there is not chosen by vast corporations who have reduced what we read to the mechanics of “turning product.” At the library the small gems still glitter quietly and those who mine them are instant millionaires.
I need the library. I need to be in the presence of books that are not for sale. I need to see the old men reading magazines, the children scampering about with such unbridled glee they sometimes forget to use their inside voices. I need to see the retired teachers loading up on mystery novels, the teenagers gathered around library tables doing homework (well, a little homework) and the business people tapping away on computers. I need to return again and again to the place that nurtured my spirit when I was a small, unhappy child. I need the library to remind me who I was and who I have become because of it.
An anachronism? Hardly. In fact, I’ll be going back today. The sneak peak was all about form. Today is about function.