A love letter to public libraries
One of my favourite shows, Fringe, is filmed in Vancouver, and one of the fun things about watching it is pointing out all the places I recognize. One of the most distinctive is the central library, which in the show acts as an alternate-universe Fringe Division headquarters. So maybe sometimes when I pop into the library to return a book I pretend I’m a Fringe agent going to work, protecting the world from supernatural decay.
Libraries are on my top-ten list of favourite places. When I was a kid, I could barely wait for our weekly trips to the local library. As a university student, I loved going to the sixth or seventh floor of the university library, walking past stacks of books and finding an empty corner to hibernate in with my books.
When I was living in China as a student, I had days of loneliness that were so painful I wasn’t sure how to live through them. I’d often take long walks by myself through the university and its neighbourhood, searching for something. One day I discovered the library. I wandered through it, eventually winding up in the study room. It wasn’t like the study areas I was used to, with their rows of neat little carrel cubicles. Here, there were five or six long rows of tables, stretching out across the hall with enough seats for probably 200 students.
I started going there a couple of times a week, bringing my vocabulary lists and dictionaries and setting my glass tea mug on the table like everyone else. And even though I was the only non-Chinese student in the room, and even though I got some looks, in the end I was just another student hunched over my textbooks.
All this chatter about physical books becoming obsolete sometimes calls into question the need for libraries. But public libraries don’t just provide books and resources and tangible services. They build community. They offer seats at tables. And for me, studying in the library, nodding and smiling at familiar people, made me feel like I wasn’t quite on the fringe of a community I couldn’t communicate with.