I’m a person who checks out books about public libraries from the public library.
The book was called, unsurprisingly, The Public Library. It’s a photographic essay by Robert Dawson about libraries throughout the United States. The range of photos is striking—from mobile libraries started in Hurricane Katrina’s wake to stately buildings from the 1800s.
To my surprise, I’ve become what can only be called a library tourist. On more than one occasion, the first stop on a trip has been the city library. Seattle’s architectural marvel was so amazing I spent the rest of the trip dreaming of living within walking distance. Boston’s library, with history at every turn, was incredible in a completely different way. In Portland, we proved to our son that card catalogs once existed, then lost ourselves in stacks of vintage magazines.
I do like books, obviously, but my love of libraries is rooted in something else. Libraries have long been a place to try on new versions of myself.
Maybe I’m the sort of person who loves science fiction or westerns. Perhaps inside of me is a jazz, poetry, architecture, or wine connoisseur. Maybe I’ll be a financial planner, writer, developer, or therapist. Alternatively, the future might be traveling the world, writing novels in cafes.
Walking into a library and leaving hours later with a stack of books on previously unknown topics opens the door to infinite possibilities. Not only is everything free, but you have to return all of it. Whereas a purchase is a commitment, borrowing books is temporary. You are free from the obligation to figure things out first.
Best of all, there are no repercussions from failed experiments, other than odd looks from a librarian with a keen eye, appreciating your wayward pursuits. You don’t wake up to surprising credit card bills or shelves of embarrassing tangents.
The Internet fills this need in some ways, and libraries continue to evolve in response. But when I look at the job fairs and computer classes, story times and manga meet-ups, writing circles and game nights taking place between the stacks, I realize that they’re still doing what only a library can do—provide a place where people of any age and means can walk in and try on a new version of themselves.