The website Bookbub.com has a piece up called “6 Beautiful Libraries You Need to Visit Right Now.” I visited the site, at least, and beheld the images of stunning large libraries like Boston Public, George Peabody Library at Johns Hopkins, and the Seattle Central Library, a glass-sheathed, very angular architectural statement that says something, though I don’t think it’s “library.” But anyway.
The libraries I’ve loved have tended — I realize this just now — to be not very attractive, appearance-wise. I think of the metal-shelved catacombs that fill the dim-lit, below-ground floors of Baker Library at Dartmouth College, and the chairs of molded plastic that made me feel like I was back home at the American Library in Kathmandu, where I taught English across the street many years ago, and tried to get the writing of my first book started. But the place where I made the deepest connection with what libraries can mean was, probably, the least lovely of all. It was damp and borderline moldy, in fact.
In Montpelier, Vermont, the Kellogg-Hubbard Library is the capital’s public library, and from the outside it’s a fine, graceful little granite building. But for many years the children’s section was in the basement, where the carpet was nearly always a little moist. But we lived just up Main Street, when my son Brad was a preschooler, and the library was probably the place we loved best.
They shelved their picture books alphabetically, but only by first initial — so Dr. Seuss was in there somewhere among the S’s. You never knew where. When we’d go down into the kids’ section, Brad at three and then four would hurry to those shelves and efficiently pull out the six or seven titles that just then were his favorites. I never could figure out how he did this.
First of all, Brad couldn’t yet read. Second, I could never find anything on those shelves! I’d look forever among the P’s for Alice and Martin Provenson’s Shaker Lane, among the M’s for Masako Matsuno’s Taro and the Tofu, among the G’s for Bill Grossman’s great Donna O’Neeshuck Was Chased by Some Cows. Sometimes I couldn’t find them at all — everything within each letter was so jumbled up. But Brad would scan a shelf and unerringly locate each favored title.
How? Finally, I asked him. “I remember how they look,” he said, and he made a little sliding motion with pinched finger and thumb.
“How they look?” At first I didn’t get it, still, but then I realized: He had memorized the spines. Not the words, but how they looked. That was how much these books meant to a small boy who’d already gone through a divorce, who pored over these stories every evening of each weekend with his dad.
Then one weekday morning in March when Brad was (I think) five, several huge chunks of ice buckled up and jammed together along the Winooski River, creating an ice dam that suddenly, in about 20 minutes as everyone was heading off for work, flooded nearly all the city’s downtown. Among the most urgently threatened resources was the Kellogg-Hubbard children’s collection. Within minutes, a large collection of volunteers had appeared at the library, gone downstairs and handed all those books up to safety. In the years that followed — after Brad and his mom, then I too, had moved to another part of the state — Kellogg-Hubbard mounted a successful fundraising campaign that enabled it to build what’s now a lovely little children’s section, a graceful addition to the back of the building.
I don’t know if they still lump the picture books together by first initial only. But I have no doubt that there are preschoolers there right now, today, who know just where and how to find the stories they love most. However graceful or not its building may be, relationships like this make every public library among the most beautiful places, if you ask me, in any community that’s smart and lucky enough to have one.