I miss the public libraries of yore. The murmur of hushed voices, the musty smell of old books, the old-fashioned index card catalogs, and yes, even the stern librarian who peered over her glasses and brusquely shushed talking patrons … all of it.
Growing up, the public library was a mysterious and wondrous haven for me, a veritable warren of delight, especially for an introvert like me.
I felt like Matilda in the movie of the same name, when she first goes to the library as a little girl. She’s overwhelmed by the sweeping expanse of books, thrilled and awed by the fact she could check out and even take them home for free. Every time I see that movie scene, I tear up. I know just how Matilda feels.
For me, it wasn’t just about reading books, either. The first novels I wrote myself were likewise supplemented by many hours spent in public libraries. My research when writing historical novels often depended upon interlibrary loan, so I could get obscure history books from big libraries even in my little town.
I used to wander libraries for the feel of it, for sheer pleasure. Libraries were quieter than commercial book stores, plus I didn’t have to feel guilty about just browsing and not buying.
How times have changed, for readers and writers both. On a positive note, research is now vastly simplified. Most of us have home Internet service to do research, and the ability to find or order even rare books online.
But there’s been a high price for this convenience. Public libraries have drastically changed in just a few years.
This came home to roost in a jarring personal experience. For a few days after I moved to a new city, I didn’t have Internet hooked up yet. I needed to use the local library to check my email and handle other online bills.
I was surprised by the rows and rows of computers there. They were being used too, but not by students. Most seemed to be adults using the computers to look for jobs, a depressing scene reminiscent of the joyless state unemployment office. Plenty of these folks were multi-tasking, using cell phones at the same time or chatting and laughing loudly with other patrons. They seemed utterly oblivious to the concept that anyone in a library might possibly need quiet to concentrate.
I thought a public library permitting patrons ringing cell phones and raucous, full-volume convos was sad enough, but things got worse. Not long after I logged on an available computer and got to work, I was startled by an explosion of noise from the library’s open atrium. Hey, my lucky night, apparently. They were holding a yodeling competition.
I’m not kidding. I wish I was. Suspended between outrage and disbelief, I tried to block out the horrific noise and wailing cacophony for the hour or so I was there. The “yodel-ay-hee-hoo-ing” was still going strong on when I left, sandwiched between people applauding, whooping and whistling for the contestants.
Something in me felt inexplicably violated by that experience. Later I felt worse when I learned it was not a rare event, but a commonplace occurrence in the “new” libraries of today.
I soon noticed the ads on public radio promoting karaoke performances, game nights, political rallies and speeches, even rap and rock groups performing right in the library itself. All while, I presume, we few remaining stone-age nerds try to read or concentrate on actual work.
I realized with a sinking heart that the beloved public library I knew and loved is gone.
Gone are the lectures in closed conference rooms or, heaven forbid, actual book signings in a library. Now the goal seems to be constant noise, extrovert-targeted entertainment, aiming for a quasi-coffee shop aura that beckon teens and tweens so they will want to hang out there. Not to study, mind you, or read those silly old books, but just to socialize. Yap and shriek and yodel, I guess.
Logically I understand how and why it happened. Libraries are dying, clinging by their proverbial dusty fingernails to a last vestige of relevancy in a brutal modern era. In a desperate gamble to stay relevant (also known as ‘funded’), they now try to be “cool.”
And, as a traditional author gone e-book indie now, maybe I’m partly to blame for the death of ye olde public library. If so, I plead mea culpa.
Dear Public Library … I’m sorry. I miss you more than I ever dreamed I might. Please come back.