Wednesday, May 20, 2020
May 20, 2020: LibraryStudying: Childhood Libraries
[On May 23rd, 1895, the project which would become the New York Public Library was launched. So for the 125th anniversary, I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of libraries and library contexts, leading up to a special post on the NYPL!]
On stand-out memories and moments, and their delightful echoes in my parenting life.
As I approach my 43rd birthday, it’s fair to say (and of course inevitable) that childhood memories continue to become fewer, further between, and fuzzier (there seems to be a point of older age where the trend reverses and they start to become clearer than current events, but I’m apparently not there yet). So I don’t have a ton of specific such memories when it comes to Charlottesville’s two public libraries: the main branch, the evocatively named Jefferson-Madison Regional Library downtown; and the Gordon Avenue branch that’s near the University of Virginia and my first childhood home. But I do have at least two such memories that come to mind: excitedly finding a copy of the newest volume in Lloyd Alexander’s Vesper Holly series (probably 1988’s The Drackenberg Adventure) on the shelves; and signing up for half-hours slots on the library’s one public computer (before we had our own at home, and in those pre-internet late 1980s days when computer games were about the coolest thing I’d ever seen) to play a round or two of Oregon Trail or Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
Without putting too much pressure on a couple of relatively random memories, I would say that those two do reflect two distinct but complementary and equally important roles of public libraries, for everyone but perhaps especially for kids. Reading is in many ways a profoundly individual and intimate activity, and libraries help us tap into and amplify that part of our lives, offering so many more books than even the most devoted bibliophile (and I used to walk down the halls of my high school reading a book, so guilty as charged) could ever possess in a lifetime, as well as ones we’d likely never have learned about at all without the library’s stacks. But at the same time, libraries are communal spaces, offering opportunities for connections to the world that are likewise distinct from those at home (and often unavailable there). Of course many of those opportunities are face-to-face, but over the last few decades at least as many have been virtual and digital. Carmen Sandiego might not be a real person, but damned if she (and the library that helped me connect to her) didn’t help ten-year old me explore the world nonetheless.
As E.B. White knew very well, one of the complex but wonderful joys of parenting is seeing our children have experiences that parallel (and thus echo, but also diverge from in inevitable and important ways) our own childhoods, and I’ve definitely seen that with my sons and the great public libraries around which they’ve grown up. The shelves of the Needham Public Library have provided countless finds, from the next volume by favorite authors like Anthony Horowitz or Rick Riordan to unexpected treasures like the works of John Bellairs (about whose books I had almost entirely forgotten until we rediscovered them on the Needham library’s shelves). And one of my strongest memories from my first years living in Waltham (where I lived from January 2013 to August 2019, so much of the boys’ childhoods) is of the boys on the communal iPads at the Waltham Public Library, playing a Spiderman game that led to a year-long obsession with the comic book superhero and his world. There’s a lot that we can’t control about our children’s lives and stories, of course, but I’ve been very glad to be able to help make libraries an important part of where my sons’ have begun.
Next library tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on these libraries, or other libraries you’d highlight/celebrate?