I have loved going to the library for as long as I can remember. I don’t recall the first time I stepped into one – I should ask my mum about that. I do remember, though, that in my childhood growing up in a small country town in NSW (hey there, Wallerawang!) I’d visit our council-run library multiple times a week. On the way home from school, even though it really wasn’t on the way. On a Saturday morning, which would turn into a Saturday afternoon until the librarian eventually kicked me out. I visited it a few years ago, on my way home from a family funeral, and whilst I recognised the outside of the building, the inside was new and different. At the same time, though, if I had to describe that the inside looked like when I lived there, I don’t know that I could – it lives in my memory as an impression, rather than an image.
I don’t really remember anything about the books I read when I spent my time there either. There are no titles that stick out for me, nor magic discoveries of favourite books or authors that ended up staying with me forever, which is strange now I think about it. But I think what happened for me between those four walls was bigger than any one story. I discovered a safe space. Surrounded by ideas, able to meet people and explore places with no fear of being hurt, or disappointed, or rejected, I discovered the world that would become my home. In my current job, we’ve kind of adopted the unofficial tagline of “Stories that stay with you” to encapsulate the impact that stories can have on a reader, and that’s totally true. But sometimes, those stories stay with you through an impression, a feeling of connection and safety, a feeling of being seen by a character on a page who you’ll struggle to remember years later but whose impact is no less lasting or important.
I went through a phase in primary school where I didn’t visit my school library, after the librarian told me that I was “too young” to read a particular book (an irony if you know what I do now for a job!) but my high school librarians were people who saw me, who nurtured the lost soul that I invariably was, and who fed my desire for connection and comfort with whatever I wanted to read, and whatever they thought would speak to me. It was also around this time that we moved to another town – not far away, and not all that much bigger, but it held the main branch of the little council library that had been my childhood spiritual home. I was entranced. Rows and rows of shelves, and no-one cared that this skinny nerdy little 12 year old was wandering around carrying books that were far too heavy for her, both physically and intellectually. And the day I discovered the basement stacks, and the book sale tables … well, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
Not surprisingly, I spent countless hours throughout uni in the library, but something happened when I got married and had children. Not through any fault of theirs, but I kind of forgot how much libraries meant to me. I’d half-heartedly go sometimes, usually to take the kids, but eventually we just stopped seeing each other, my Library Lover and I. When I started teaching, I spent very little time in the library, as the one that was at my school bore no relation to any library I’d loved before.
And then, I got the chance to change it. It stoked in me a passion I’d forgotten existed. I started to remember what my past Library Lovers had meant to me, and it made me want to build something like that for the students I treasured, as well as the ones I didn’t know. Did it work? I’m not sure. I know that for the kids who spent time in my library, it mattered. I hope that there are traces of that still living on in that space now I’m gone.
Now, I don’t spend much time in libraries – they’re the first places I schedule visits to on holidays, and I’ve got quite the collection of library cards, but they aren’t really a part of my typical weekly schedule. I guess I’d like to change that, and I’m going to pop into my local library this afternoon and pay my very overdue lost book fine (sorry, Penrith City Library!). Whilst I don’t spend time in a library often, though, I’m so passionate about their importance, and their potential to positively impact the lives of individuals and communities in ways that you can’t easily quantify, but are nonetheless meaningful. I guess you could say I’m in a long distance relationship with libraries now (which is also kind of appropriate if you know my personal story!)
So, happy library lovers’ day. Go visit yours this weekend. Ask the librarian for a recommendation. Give them a smile. And pick up a story that will hopefully stay with you for long after the last page is read.