28 July 2010

I Heart Libraries

I’ve been feeling nostalgic about libraries lately. Maybe it’s the proliferation of e-readers. Maybe it’s the fact that I can do a lot of library business—like search for and check out books—without even going there. I have such fond memories of a childhood trips to the library—walking the stacks, running my hands along spines, squirreling away in carrels to page through piles of books. I wasn’t on the hunt for anything particular, just looking. A colleague of mine calls today’s search experience a “surgical strike.” You know where you want to go before you get there and you pluck the book (or article, or bit of information) with no regard to what’s around it. We probably save time this way, but we lose a lot in the process. What about the unexpected discoveries that come as a result of browsing? The connections that are made when we open ourselves up to the possibilities that exist outside what we already know we want?

I was thinking about this when I put together my syllabus for a recent Introduction to Creative Writing class. What would happen, I wondered, if I just plunked everyone down in the library near the literature? This was during the poetry unit of the class and they had a task—to find poems that resonated for them in some way. What a delight to see students sprawled out on the floor of the library, noses in slim volumes of poetry, books stacked up beside them. The project had them follow through on the connections they made and I was floored to see just what came of this. Students stumbled upon poems that made them think of their futures, of grandparents who had passed away, of childhood inspirations they’d long forgotten. I did this project with them and found a poem that inspired in me a peculiar sense of dark wonder that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. It may or may not lead somewhere in my own work—I’m still chewing on it—but it certainly sparked something.

What about you? Do you still wander the stacks like you did before card catalogues went the way of trendy apartment decor?

For those of you who miss riffling through those index cards in search of just the right book, this catalogue card generator from blyberg.net that might offer you a bit of cyber soothing. I’ve already spent way too much time with the Dewey Decimal System trying to make clever connections between number and subject that no one will even notice.


Indigo Girl said...

Absolutely . . . I will never tire of browsing books, and hopefully print books won't disappear completely!

Letterpress said...

No, they won't. They can't!

Anonymous said...

Although much of my searching is online, I still go to my small local library for the pleasure of making serendipitous finds. University libraries have the greatest potential,providing browsers with weird and wonderful gems. Bookshops used to be serendipitous places, with their huge range of books, but now the best bet is a good 2nd-hand bookshop.

Chuck said...

I've written a few poems sitting in our town's library.

I've watched grown ups clamor for free computer access, then race against time to complete what they needed to do.

I've sat in the children's section and watched the kids -- and the mothers who want their kid to read what she wants and the kid will have nothing to do with her selection.

If there is any place to be where like-minded people congregate, it is the local library.

If there is any place one can find a bunch of introverts all in the same place, it's the library.

I'm one of them.

Letterpress said...

Anon, I’m on board with the second hand bookshops. I adore the strangeness one can happen upon at a good one. I have a beloved collection of field guides from used bookstores--on clouds, nonflowering plants, etc. I page through them more often than I thought I would.

Chuck, you’re right—libraries are about so much more than just books. The people watching alone can give you more characters than you know what to do with.

HeyZee said...

When I enter a library in a town near me, the bittersweet fragrance from the children's section that I first enjoyed 45 years ago is still in the air there.
I often wander the stacks, and it is the certain odors of certain book sections in certain libraries that keep me coming back.

Letterpress said...

Oh, the scents . . . they can bring back such vivid memories.