The Power of the Public Library

Having Fun Isn’t Hard When You Have a Library Card

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The coveralls, hoodie, snow cap, scarf and gloves I’m wearing are not enough to stop my face from falling victim to windburn as I walk down the snow covered roads. Skin exposed to the air stings.

My thermal-subzero boots feel weighted and my glasses are fogged. A vision of pink, purple and orange hangs in the sky ahead of me, shades of gray loom in the background. The sun is setting and the temperature is dropping. I’m almost there.

It’s December and the small town where I live in Iowa is the IRL version of living in a snow globe. Snow falls off and on from Halloween until prom season each year on a spectrum of flurries to a dramatic over-abundance. I’m walking to the library. It’s a mile from my house, down in the town square.

I arrive within minutes of the book club starting. The others are sitting around the fireplace, each holding their borrowed copy of The Wife, written by Meg Wolitzer and chatting about their personal lives.

I pour a cup of coffee and find a seat, nodding my head as a greeting. I’m a minimum of twenty years younger than everyone else in the group.

I grew up in an abusive household and the library acted as a sanctuary. As often as I could I’d walk to the library after school and stay there until it closed at 8 PM. I was middle school age when I began doing this. It was anywhere but home and everything I needed — food, water, warmth, familiar faces and safety.

One of the coolest things about the library is “borrowing” books. Kids get to do it on their own without parental involvement. Once I discovered this I was hooked. I showed the librarian a piece of mail proving where I lived, signed a piece of paper and was given a library card. I had access to all of the knowledge in the world and no one could stop me. I felt powerful. That library card was my first taste of independence. I was ten years old.

Books are an extension of the library. I’d borrow a book and carry it with me everywhere. I believed it would protect me like a shield of armor. It didn’t work out as I hoped but those books did help reduce how traumatized I felt in the aftermath. The madness would die down, the rage would settle and all would go quiet. I’d immediately open a book and vanish into its pages.

I transformed into hundreds of characters. I went on adventures. I sailed across the ocean. I grew up on a farm in the early 1800’s. I was the girl every guy wanted to take to prom. I went anywhere but home, and it felt good.

While my real life friends were partying and living out their high school glory days I was at the library with my face buried in a book.

The library created a sense of safety, something I desperately needed to feel. I knew eventually my real life friends and I would grow up and move on but books would remain with me forever and so would the library.

As I entered into adulthood it was books and the sanctuary of the library that helped me heal from my childhood experiences.

As a single mother raising two children there was never money left over for frills and thrills but there was always the library. When I couldn’t afford dance classes for my five year old daughter, she attended a series of eight ballet classes the library offered for free.

When I couldn’t afford the high cost of childcare to cover the three hour gap between the time school was dismissed and when I got off of work the library provided it for me in the school cafeteria. I’d arrive each evening to pick up my kids and they’d ramble with excitement about all the cool stuff they did.

We’d go to the library on Saturday mornings and borrow stacks of books I could read to them before bed. As they grew older we designated a family reading hour. Each night after dinner we sat together in the living room reading our borrowed books.

At age nine my son wanted to check out 1000 Places to See Before You Die, written by Patricia Schultz. 1200 pages wasn’t enough to scare him off. Fascination filled his eyes as he shuffled through the pages while standing in the Nonfiction section with me. The three of us spent the next five weeks passing it around and taking turns reading it aloud.

One summer we took Taekwondo classes together as a family. It was type of thing I’d wished my parents had done while I was growing up and here I was doing it with my own children instead.

Throughout college the library was my savor. In 2010 the library became accessible 24/7 online. It was tough working full time, raising two kids on my own and attending eighteen credit hours per semester. I hardly slept and those long hours through the night were spent online at the virtual library studying for an exam or researching for a paper.

When I graduated with a PhD in 2014 I felt I owed a great deal of success to the library. It was always available like a friend to lift me up when I needed it most, providing me with a solid foundation and an endless amount of resources to ensure I’d succeed.

When I took the test for the NASA Pathways Program, the library was where I studied and found credible information to teach me. I researched through books, had access to a tutor to assist with improbable math equations and the professor in the writing center helped me edit and revise my entrance essay.

When I was hired into the program, the library’s director is who I ran to with the envelope. I wanted her to be proud of me. I had done it but only because the library gave me the necessary tools to do so.

I brought my future husband to the campus library. Having two of my greatest loves together in one place felt romantic. We walked closely to one another as we toured both floors and each room. I watched his love for books unfold. Since then, going to the library has become a regular date night routine for us.

After we moved across the country I was crippled by the depression and mania I struggled with throughout my life. I found myself isolating at home with my collection of books, my only connection to the outside world was via the internet.

I sunk deeper into the pit. It had a hold on me and I needed to break myself free. I turned to the library, again, for solace just as I have throughout my lifetime. It’s the one place that has provided me with comfort since childhood. I began attending free classes, author readings, movie showings and the book club.

I developed relationships with the librarians while making chit-chat when ordering inter-library materials I needed at the time for research. They’re fans of my writing and follow me on Instagram and Facebook. Within weeks of getting a library card at our small town public library I found myself leaving the house more and most importantly, wanting to leave the house more.

In the mornings I’ll have a cup of coffee and read the newspaper. I’ll spend three afternoons a week writing to the whisper of pages shuffling and the rapid fire of clanking away at a computer keyboard.

During the winter I curl up on the couch in front of the fireplace in the library’s reading area and immerse myself in a story. I search up and down the aisles carefully selecting the next book I’ll read.

It was so many days that I physically and emotionally forced myself out of my house and to the library.

I became a person again.

I found my husband waiting for me in the lobby after the book club came to an end. He walks me home the first Monday night of every month when the club meets. I could drive but the walk is more meaningful.

Underneath the moon’s dim light the snow covered roads look more like igloo tunnels. I mention to him that there’s a Bluegrass band playing at the library on Thursday night. Do you want to go? I ask.

Of course I do, he says and takes my hand in his to lead me up the hill to our house. In his other hand he’s carrying my borrowed books.

Newspaper reporter in Eastern Iowa. The views expressed are mine alone.

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