I can remember the phases of my life by the books I have read.
I started with alphabet books and The Berenstein Bears; then I grew to Amelia Bedelia and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona. With the tween years came The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High, which morphed to the angst of a very young teenager and V.C. Andrews.
There was a time when all I read was fantasy - Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time - next it was the classics - Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice, The Count of Monte Cristo. Then, once in graduate school, there was little choice or time or energy to read anything other than notes and textbooks.
Now I feel like I have opened up and so have my choices about what I read. Now I have no favorite author or genre. I tend to gravitate toward nonfiction - memoir, psychology, commentary - but some good fiction still sneaks in - Cutting for Stone, Alias Grace.
And it mostly still comes from the library.
My reading life started for me at the local public library, which was a haven for my single mother of four. It was a place that was safe and free and kid-friendly, and that she could be assured would be interesting for all of us at all our various ages.
We went there a lot.
I remember it as colorful bulletin boards and bright lights, and as clean and cool in the summertime. I loved the calm and the quiet. And I really loved leaving there with my freshly selected stack of books.
I also remember the summer reading program and how signing up every year was an exciting time of possibility. The program was mine. I could read the titles I wanted and as many or as few as I chose as I worked toward prizes like free ice cream at Lyon’s.
As I got older, still well before Google, the library became the place where knowledge lived. When my mom answered with, “I don’t know, go look it up,” or if I needed something for school beyond our home set of World Book encyclopedias, I could find it at the library.
I have always thought of the library as where I came from.
I often hear the message today that libraries sort of need to re-brand themselves as being more than just about books. That there’s a need to keep them relevant as ebooks take over print, and online searches have replaced the traditional role of the librarian.
It feels like almost an urgency to point out that they are hubs of connection and community engagement; that they are places of gathering and innovation and inclusion.
But for those of us who grew up at the library, we already know that’s true.
While the library is absolutely the place where my love of reading books was nurtured, it was also a place where I shared with other kids and started to develop my sense of self. It was a place where I felt empowered by my choices and learned about achievement and goals and self-sufficiency.
It was a gift to my mom and the backdrop of my childhood. And even now as an adult, many years later and many miles away, everywhere I’ve moved I’ve sought out the public library. It’s how I feel like I live in a place. It’s how it feels like home.
I’ve walked through its doors and signed up for a card and become a local library patron. I've kept up with its calendar of events and attended book readings and lectures and concerts. I've used it as a quiet place to work and read and write. I've met friends and taken advantage of free meeting rooms. I've shared it with family who've come to visit. I've volunteered.
Oh yeah, and I've also checked out some books.