Two weeks ago it was National Library Week. Coincidentally, I was listening to Neil Gaiman’s “The View from the Cheap Seats” including a speech he gave to librarians.
Neil Gaiman describes himself as a “feral child who was raised in libraries.”* Though I was not lucky enough to get to the library very often as a child, the concept resonates with me. Especially since he also read and loved the Three Investigators series…
My first library, the Franklin Public Library, sounds much like his first favorite library—a large Victorian mansion, the entire first floor full of books. I don’t know about his, but mine was built in 1849, renovated in 1921 to house the library…
I remember my library card was blue. It had a tiny metal strip in it. My mother’s library card was brown. It meant she could get more books than I could, and from more than just the children’s section.
My mother always had to get some children’s books on her card, as the limit on my blue card was cruelly low.
Walking in the front door of the library, you had to go up three or four steps to get to the library floor. There were also stairs heading down. And a turn of steps going higher in the building. I never went up, but I just knew that wonders lay there. My mother said meeting rooms.
Downstairs—I went downstairs once. In a large room with old paintings and dim lights, an entire tiny village covered a huge table, complete with snow and trains that went around and past each other and never crashed. There were more rooms down there, but that was the only one my mother took me to.
I never did any illicit exploring. Getting thrown out of the library would have been too much to bear.
At some point they added a wing to the library, and that was now the children’s section. It was modern and light, with tall narrow windows and open floor space and bright colors. I didn’t like it at all, but by then the librarians would let me into the still-old adult section, looking for Tolkien and Agatha Christie and Fritz Leiber and really anything with enough pages to last me just a little longer.
Back around November last year, I was debating with a friend about Voter ID laws. She was of the belief that everyone already has ID, and gave as proof that you need ID to get a library card. I pointed out that not everyone has a library card and she didn’t believe me.
It’s true, though. Some people don’t know. They don’t know the wonders that lie in even the most modern-looking and brightly-lit library. They don’t know that, as Neil Gaiman put it, “there’s nothing quite like the glorious serendipity of finding a book you didn’t know you wanted to read.”
And they don’t know the wonder of stepping into a glorious old Victorian mansion and being transported to a far and marvelous land. Not once, but again and again. Reliably. Joyously. That in a book—
Am I the only one who just started singing the Reading Rainbow theme song?
Anyway. I was the middle child, the only girl, and a dreamer who didn’t make friends easily. In that Victorian mansion I found friends, and I found views on the world that were not the same as mine. I have to agree with Mr. Gaiman on the empathy one finds when one reads. I am grateful that though I was raised and steeped in a racist and sexist culture in a small steel town in Pennsylvania, I can see, and have seen since I was small, that it is not right. Persons of color are not more violent and less intelligent than I am. Women (myself included) are not less intelligent, less strong, less important than men.
And you’ve always always got to stand up for what’s right. Like funding libraries, and saving feral children by doing so.
*This is not the speech, this is an article I found when looking around for the speech online. Also I should say that Gaiman did mention in his speech that librarians have asked that he tell people it is not okay to leave their children lost in libraries. One has to assume he meant “not too much, anyway.”