Crossing the Threshold

I’m curious. Did a library, public or private, play a role in your life as a reader?

Children's Section

Children’s Section

Last week, in the course of discussing our first encounters with the works of Clifford Simak, Alan Robson and I tangented off into recollections of our earliest crossings between the “children’s” and “adult” sections of the library. I was pleased when several of those who chose to comment mentioned their own First Encounters of the Library Kind.

When I bopped into the library this past weekend to pick up my hold on Naruto, volume 65, a DVD of Galaxy Quest, and several magazines I’m checking over before actually subscribing, I found myself wondering what role libraries play in readers’ lives these days.

I’ve been a library junkie pretty much as long as I’ve known libraries existed. At first I went only for books. Then one summer I discovered that libraries also had record albums. (This being in those days of yore when music was magically pressed into black vinyl.) I believe that, among us, my siblings and I kept out several favored albums out for the entire summer. The library also had collections of the comics I’d previously encountered sparingly doled out in the newspaper. Now, at last, it was possible to read the evolution of various characters. Non-fiction was less attractive to me in those early days but still, occasionally, I’d take out a book about some art or craft that interested me.

Adult Section

Adult Section

I do much the same today. I take out novels, but I also take out armloads of research materials. I miss the old card catalogs, but computer catalogs do make inter-branch loans incredibly easy. I’ve typed my library card number in so many times that I actually have the fifteen digits memorized. With the resources offered by having the entire library system available to me for a few keystrokes and a little patience, I’ve explored works I might otherwise never have known were available.

I see lots of young parents in the library, but usually their arms are full of kids or books for the kids, not for themselves. I’ve garnered the impression that folks between their tweens and, say, early thirties, seem to have dropped out of the library scene, except when the need to pick up something related to a certification exam or suchlike drives them through the doors.

This isn’t just based observation when I’m in the library – after all, my hours are weird and erratic, as benefits my self-employed state. Instead, I’ve received the impression when I’ve mentioned something I’ve taken out of the library (ours has a pretty good manga collection), and co-hobbyists seem unaware of the option. So I’ve wondered… Has the library been replaced by the internet for a certain age group? If so, I think that’s a pity.

Using the library is nearly as easy as reading off the net. Many library catalogs are available on-line. That means it’s possible to order in advance, and only stop by the library to pick up the swag when it comes in. In some cases, as with audio books, more and more libraries are offering downloads. I take out several each week without ever leaving the comfort of home.

But I believe I’ll always enjoy trips to the library. There’s nothing like browsing through open stacks for discovering books you might not have otherwise found. When I was researching for my novel Child of a Rainless Year, I encountered Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens by Patricia Lynne Duffy, a non-fiction work about synesthesia. I was looking for another book on another subject entirely. Yet, this accidental find shaped some elements of my novel. Without that idle wander down the shelves, I never would have encountered it and my novel would have missed something special. It’s hard to have the same sort of impulse contact, even with the best search engine and most provocative series of links.

Some years ago, our library started shelving non-fiction for children side-by-side with adult books on the same topic. I think space considerations were part of the reason, but part was to tempt children to cross the line. This pays off for adults, too. Often the best way to learn about a new subject is to read a treatment for children. Terms are often better defined, providing a foundation from which to read further.

I know some people think there shouldn’t be a “Children’s” section at all. I can see the arguments for both sides. As with so many issues regarding what children should and should not be exposed to, I think that parental, rather than institutional, guidance is advised.

But I wander a bit far… How do you feel about libraries? Do you use them? Do you like how they are changing? Do you think the internet has made them obsolete, and that they should be replaced by rows of computer terminals?

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10 Responses to “Crossing the Threshold”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    Hmmm…

    Well, all three of my public schools had libraries as good as space permitted. No librarian in elementary, but the teachers took us in regularly, and my gr5/6 classroom had a pretty substantial sublibrary. In Jr High, there was a library parade every Friday during study period [like Sick Parade, only for readers], and the librarian would usually open after she finished her lunch. High School, you could sign up for a library pass any study period in your schedule. Which I did always did, except the year there was one period where the teacher had no issues with us playing whist instead of studying.

    But my real library career started in gr3 or 4 when they marched us all up to the bookmobile [later replaced by a branch], showed us through it, and handed us all applications for a card. Which my mother quite cheerfully signed. Took me a year or so to find my way to the Central Library.

    In those days, although the Winnipeg Public Library did have a childrens’ section, there was no restriction at all on where I could browse. Nor, as far as I could ever discover, on what I could borrow – the limit, and the reason I asked for an Adult card before I was 12, was on _how_much_ I could have out. Mind you, I expect that if I’d wandered up to the counter with a copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover [in the rather unlikely event of them having a copy 😉 ] questions would be asked, but I was hitting the science and history shelves in those days, and nobody had an issue with _that_. So I admit to being rather bemused by the various accounts of having to fight your way into the real books.

    Currently, I’m a patron [and fairly extensive supporter: I’m always forgetting to renew loans, and the fines do add up] of the Toronto Public Library. Which does have rows of computers in between the books, but lots of people go for the books. I do tend to browse the on-line offerings a lot, and go into the local branch only to pick up holds, but that’s partly because most of the branches are pretty small – storefronts, often – intended to make it easy to do just that. Not always, though, since the real gems of the system are the reference collections, like the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy, which are non-circulating. The only way to use them is to go in. And ask for the material – these are real rare and research collections, you don’t get to wander the stacks!

  2. Nicholas Wells Says:

    I think to a point it has lost it’s pull. Ever since e-books started taking off, people are more willing to spend a little money on an e-book, and thus never go to the library.

    However, even in that field there is hope. I’ve heard of services that are like netflix for e-books. True it’s still a monthly fee, but then you get to read all the e-books you want.

    Then again, this too has meant more people getting their content over the internet than in person. So yes, libraries have lost some traffic, but there are still too many books you can’t find anywhere else. That and lots of people still prefer the quiet you can get there.

    Sometimes it’s the only quiet to be had. I speak from experience.

  3. Sean Says:

    I use the same Library System as Jane does. While I don’t do the Ebook thing, our library here in ABQ does have a large Ebook selection which you can browse and checkout online without ever going to the physical space. You can also browse them at the Library (not just in the classic catalog) but on the special Ebook checkout stands.

    The two branches I use the most seem to be full fairly often with a diverse crowd including teens, children and adults of all ages when I go (late afternoons and Saturdays). I think it helps that our library offers a wide range of programs that are also gauged to a variety of users.

    For example: Did you know the ABQ Library System has a seed Library and you can check out seeds? My children love the Read to the Dogs Program and several branches sponsor Lego Clubs where the Library provides the Legos and the Space. The Tony Hillerman Library here also has new scavenger hunt in the Library almost every month. The hunt has clues all over the library.

    I agree parental guidance is best for guiding a child. I do think though it is helpful that the libraries have child, YA and Adult sections for shelving, which makes it easier on us parents.

  4. The Great ME! Says:

    “Has the library been replaced by the internet for a certain age group?”

    Honestly, I think the library has been replaced by the internet by people with money more than by people from a particular age group. Not everyone can afford to buy books – either in hard copies or as eBooks(for the many titles that still must be bought). The Library let’s those who can’t(or won’t, even if they can afford it, in some cases) take home and enjoy a book they might otherwise have to go without.

    I’ve noticed, living in both very high-wealth areas and ghetto areas that library activity tends to be higher in areas of low wealth, even when the areas of high wealth have a much bigger, better, more expensive library. And most of the activity in the poorer areas seems to be for the actual books or need of free/cheap computer access, whereas more of the activity in wealthy areas is because of sponsored events within the library. At least that’s been the general experience in the state where I live, but maybe it’s different in other states.

  5. Sally Says:

    I also use the same library system as Jane, though mostly I go to the main branch downtown. I sometimes get comments from the staff on my library card when I check out books, because it is old enough to qualify as vintage (and looks it too). I’ve been going to Main since about 1971. Before that, in high school, I rode my bike to a small branch library, riding and reading at the same time on my way home. Dumb of course, but I survived unscathed.

    When I was little, in Florida, we went to the library about once a week. I clearly remember staggering out with a double stack of books up to my chin. Before we left Florida, when I was eleven, I had started to take books out from the adult side.

    In the tiny (population 275) town we moved to in Arkansas the only nearby library was the school one. I guess I impressed the teacher who served as librarian, because they gave me a special award (all of $5 as I recall) for reading the most books.

    For the most part I like the ways our local library is changing. Main is almost always busy when I go in (Tuesday afternoon). Some of that is due to the computer terminals–which are great for folks who don’t have computers at home–and to people who go there to hang out, but there are always people–mostly adults–browsing the shelves. Downstairs in the children’s/YA room there are fewer people, but it’s never empty, even though school is in session when I go. I use the internet connections to borrow audio books and e-books, and am grateful for that, but it’s much easier to browse for books I didn’t know I wanted in the library itself.

  6. heteromeles Says:

    I use the library quite a lot. However, my SFF got started by reading my father’s collection. He was severely disabled, it was hard for him to hold and read a book without trashing it (try reading with your offhand only, if you want to understand what happens). After he trashed a couple of library books, my parents started buying his books instead of checking them out. That resulted in a large collection for me to read when I got old enough. Once I got to college, I started using libraries again and never stopped.

  7. Katie Says:

    I’m in the demographic you mention, and I go to our branch library all the time! Mostly just to pick up my holds that I place online (even from my phone, yay technology) and not to browse, but the branch in our neighborhood is teeny tiny. I think if I lived closer to some of the bigger, prettier ones, I might linger more. But even in our little library, I like to browse through the new releases, and when I’m interested in a nonfiction subject, it’s usually easier to browse the selection than to order a specific book.

    Also, I think my fellow mom-friends are more likely to use the library if they are themselves readers than my childless friends. I suspect the differences in disposable income and the very important middle class ritual of Taking the Kids to the Library both play a role in this.

    • janelindskold Says:

      And from the Comments here, I think you can see how important that “Taking the Kids to the Library” ritual is. Congratulations for making the effort!

  8. Paul Says:

    I was still in elementary school when I was intrigued by a title I saw (“From Russia, with Love”) but would only read years later. I did get a parent to check out “Behind the Flying Saucer,” my first exposure to the Roswell legend, and read that. It colored my UFO thinking for years. In my high school library, I segued from the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift to Asimov, Heinlein and “When Worlds Collide.” In an Army service club library, I first read “They Walked Like Men” (see Jane and Alan’s Thursday Tangent). Today I’m a volunteer at our local library, a relatively small one but it offers on-line access to the (surprising) numbers of people with no other computer access, newspapers and magazines as well as books and audiobooks, and you can download ebooks from it. It has eight monthly book clubs, a twice-monthly writers’ group, and more other programs than there’s room to list here. So, yes, I’d call it relevant today.

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