~by Amanda Smith
When I was a little girl, my father would take my brother and me to the Pretoria Public Library every other week, where we could each check out two books. I would tightly hug my books against my chest as we crossed the busy street, skipped up the wide steps, and entered the grand red granite building through enormous oiled teak doors.
The Children’s Library was on the second story, accessed by an enchanted staircase that magically transported itself from the greatest castle of a fantasy novel. My dad would let us ascend to the Realms of Upstairs by ourselves as he continued on the adult shelves. Inside the children’s library, I was greeted by the kind librarian who always remembered my name. She received my books like the great treasure they were, and paid me with the keys to the universe, my two sunshine-yellow library pockets. My tickets to Narnia.
There, between the dark wood shelves, lined with rows upon rows of books, hugged by silence, breathing in the wholesome, dusty smell of historical building, knowledge, and art, I lost myself. And found myself.
And a place to belong.
Many, many years later, when my husband and I immigrated to the US, one of the first things we did, was to join our local library. It was there that we learned to navigate this new culture, were educated about US holidays and celebrations by exhibits librarians thoughtfully pulled together, and ran into acquaintances who became friends.
We found a place to belong.
When my children were toddlers, we were regulars at library story times and craft mornings. When they became independent readers, we signed up for summer reading programs and activities such as visiting magicians, hand-drum sessions and worm races. Parents huddled in the back in quiet conversation, watching kids play, and maybe made arrangements to meet at a playground later in the week, finding community.
And a place to belong.
Last summer, as part of a road trip, our family visited friends in Pittsburgh. Proud to show off their city, they took us to the Carnegie Museum and amazing Carnegie library (true kindred spirits). Their kids dragged our kids to the youth room as we explored the fabulous architecture of the library. When we returned to the youth room, we found our children playing board games with other kids who happened to be there. Some kids were knitting, others had fabric scraps laid out over the table, making elaborate fabric art plans, others were playing computer games. As I looked at these city kids (and my country bumpkins dragged into the mix) contently engaged and interacting, I saw kids who found a safe place.
The place they belong.
Recently I have watched our small-town library undergo a transformation. When we pop in after school, we have walked in on Taco parties and art classes. A youth director has been hired to provide after-school activities to students who stay at the library every afternoon. She offers homework help and recommends books. I have heard her give pep talks and friendship advice. Today’s library is a far cry from the quiet place that provided sanctuary to me. When I watch my youngest lug a stack of graphic novels taller than himself to the check-out counter, I marvel at all the ways libraries have changed.
Upon entering our library, we walk past the expected: books, DVDs, music. We greet the patrons: the elderly, the scholars, the unemployed doing a job-search on the computers provided. We scan the flyers advertising activities hosted by the library: Yoga classes, book clubs, sewing and art classes, local authors’ support groups. We browse the ever-growing audiobook section. We lose a child in the expansive graphic novel section. And then we pause at something new: A Library of Things: board games, toys, puzzles, Lego!
What other international institution has adapted to a continuously changing world as successfully as libraries have? Libraries have their finger on the pulse of their communities, and constantly adapt and grow to meet their communities' needs. Yet libraries continue to do what they have always done.
Provide a place to belong.
April 7- 13 is National Library week. If you haven’t visited your library since your childhood, I would like to urge you to look in and discover all it has to offer. If you are a lifer, like me, this is the perfect week to thank your librarians.
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