The Libraries (and Librarians) That Shape Our Lives

Everyone, it seems, has their favorite library or librarian. You told us about yours.

Susan Orlean
Oct 16, 2018 · 5 min read
Illustration: Corey Corcoran

Libraries go deep. That’s the thing I discovered when I first started thinking about libraries: My memories of them are elemental and bottomless. In fact, the branch library I went to as a kid is more present and vivid in the landscape of my childhood than anything besides my family home.

I began going to the library with my mother before I could read, and even then, I loved the smell and feel of the place. Although I was too young to appreciate what a library actually was, I somehow knew that it was safe and free and warm — welcoming even to a wild-eyed toddler who had a penchant for yanking the biggest book off the shelf and letting it drop to the floor with a thud. And when I learned to read — oh boy. I couldn’t get to the library often enough. It was the one place my ravenous appetite for books could be sated.

My mother and I drove to the Bertram Woods Branch Library several times a week. There was something frictionless and magical about those visits. No money was exchanged, no limits placed; there was none of the dull grind of commerce that attended most transactions with the world. To me, the library was an infinite abundance, presented without conditions attached. What else in life felt so generous? And where else could any inkling I had be answered? One day I might go to the library inflamed with a love of Shetland ponies, knowing I would leave with a stack of books about them. The next visit, I was on a mythology bender. Needlepoint, headstones, German shepherds, wagon trains, sock monkeys, pioneer families, ghost stories — whatever I was aching with curiosity about, I knew that when I went to the library, I would leave with an armload of satisfaction.

I was in love with the library, and I know I’m not the only one. In the past five years, whenever I mentioned to anyone that I was writing a book about libraries, the reaction was always the same: a sort of swoon, then a gush of memories, then a declaration of deep love. I can’t remember any subject that has elicited such affection, such allegiance and appreciation. Everyone, it seems, has his or her favorite library story and favorite library and, often, a favorite librarian, who opened a new world through the portal of a book.

The fact that I had been welcomed into the adult section made me realize that I was growing up.

As for me, it was a librarian who changed my world. I had girlish crushes on all the librarians at Bertram Woods. They all seemed so serene, so wise, so obliging, so womanly, so capable. One in particular always seemed to notice me when I approached the desk to check out my books. Her name was Miss Neal, and she was tall and slim and whispery and had a way with a cardigan sweater. We didn’t interact much; she was usually stationed in the Adult Literature section, which still felt off-limits to me, so mostly Miss Neal just nodded and smiled at me when she saw me on my frequent visits. When I was about 12 years old, there came a time when I had outgrown my passion for books about horses; my obsession with Misty of Chincoteague and Black Beauty had begun to wane. I knew I wanted something else to read, but I didn’t know what. I felt some stirrings of curiosity that I was too shy to describe, but I wanted to read books about it. I started coming home from the library uncharacteristically empty-handed but full of angst. One afternoon, I went to the library after school, and I saw Miss Neal at her desk in Adult Literature. I sidled over. She looked up and greeted me, folding her hands on her desk in a gesture that I interpreted as a sign that she was ready to listen. I stood at her desk for a while, kicking my instep and muttering about who knows what, about this and that, about making noise and killing time to see if I could muster the courage to ask what I wanted to ask.

How did she know what I was having trouble saying? I’ll never know, but I’ll always remember that she stood up without saying anything and walked me over to a section of the bookshelves. She ran her hands over the books on the shelf and, after a moment, pulled one out and put it in my hands. The cover was gauzy and dark — a picture of a rocky seashore in half-light and a fragile, tragic young woman gazing into the sea. She told me that she thought this was what I was looking for. I must have eked out a quick thank you and raced to the checkout counter and then out the door without even opening the book. It was the first time I was checking out an adult book. I read it as soon as I got home. It was a historical novel by Victoria Holt, and it was exactly what I yearned for: Gently romantic, mildly sexy, deeply emotional, dreamy and achy and wistful. It was the right book for me at the right moment, just as my interest was shifting from horses to boys but I wasn’t even able to understand it. The book made it real for me, and the fact that I had been welcomed into the adult section made me realize that I was growing up. The minute I finished the book, I rushed back to the library and got the next Victoria Holt, and then, in the next few months, the next and the next and the next, until I read every one on the shelf. By the time I had read through Victoria Holt, and then the Brontës, and all the literature of yearning and romance and love, I was all grown up.

I never did thank Miss Neal for knowing what I needed without needing me to say it, for walking me to the books I didn’t even know existed, for seeing my adolescent inarticulateness and knowing what I was fumbling to say. I had always loved the library, but at that moment, I loved it even more, and it became a marker — a guidepost, in fact — in that awkward journey from childhood to adulthood, lighting the path as I stumbled along. When I began working on The Library Book, I thought of her for the first time in years, and it was as clear as if it were yesterday: Miss Neal, in her tan cardigan, leading me to the bookshelf and sending me on my way.

What about you? Was there a librarian who helped you understand yourself better, or even changed the course of your life? A library that felt like a safe harbor — or a source of dangerous ideas? Along with the editors at Medium, I invited readers to share their own stories about libraries that have left an imprint on their lives. Read their stories here.

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