In the same way that lions do not need to be told about the deliciousness of gazelles, nor sandcastle builders about the sea, for bookish people it goes without saying that libraries, our world’s repositories of knowledge and story, are places of tremendous power, as much as fairy mounds and parliaments. One can enter a library, fairy mound, or legislative chamber, spend an uncountable amount of time within, and emerge to a world that is subtly changed. In Diane Duane’s The Book of Night with Moon, the New York Public Library catalog is a wizarding manual. In the TV series Hilda, the library contains libraries, and the innermost library conceals a witches’ school. A hundred more examples are easily found.
For a bookish child, if they are fortunate, a library is also a clean, well-lighted place and a desk or quarter table of one’s own, well before a room of one’s own becomes possible. It is a site of relative peace, where one can work, or loaf, or learn; where a decimal system is the only hierarchy, and even the forbidden Reference books can be thumbed through for a time.
I don’t remember my first library.
At my second library, the children’s librarian taught me to fold origami cranes and weave silver streamers through a yarn-webbed loom.
My third library was a barrel-roofed glass-block affair, airy and light during the day, warmly lit at night, where the loudest sound, community programs aside, was rain crackling on the metal roof. A single railroad track, like a forgotten splinter off the Northeast Corridor, ran straight into a library window before vanishing. Some wit had set a painted plywood train not far from there, among the children’s books.
From the age of twelve, I was a page in that library. I stamped younger children’s summer reading logs, shelved returns, filed holds, and accumulated, over the course of a day, a stack of books that had caught my eye, to be checked out when I left in the evening. The librarians were kind women who did not mind an unattended child among their desks, dialing their landlines, informing people with great seriousness that I was calling from the library and that their books had arrived.
That library, like any library, contained universes. When I wasn’t working, I tucked myself into a chair and read: mystery, history, Terry Pratchett. I haunted specific regions of the Dewey Decimal System: classics and books on writing (the 800s, halfway down the stacks), psychology (100s, farthest shelf), history or travel (900s). I learned how to summon books from other libraries, or how to conjure a new and fascinating book, not yet acquired, into the library catalog. I was powerful there, as I was nowhere else. And I knew precisely where I belonged: ADULT FIC SF, ADULT FIC, ADULT FIC M, YA, 808.1-3.
A few years later, I was rather put out when I discovered that college libraries used the Library of Congress classification system. It took me a year to figure out those strangely lettered spaces. It took me over three years to locate the extraordinary Cotsen Children’s Library nested within the university library, with its multistory ginkgo tree for small readers to hide in and a secret staircase of amusingly titled wooden books. I never did find the death masks of Keats, Wordsworth, etc., that were said to be present in that library. I did find a staircase leading nowhere.
Ellen Klages’ “In the House of the Seven Librarians,” which I first read in a library book, is a fairy tale about a firstborn child left in a book return. I loved the story and forgot about it until, much later and traveling alone, I attended a reading of Ellen’s in Orlando. I all but fell out my chair when I realized what I was hearing, so suddenly and vividly did that fantasy return to me. It was no less true because I had grown up.
I tell people that I was raised by libraries, which is similar to being raised by wolves, except that one winds up with a larger vocabulary. There was much I did not learn because I was busy reading, not least the correct pronunciation of words. Also: sports. Charm. Social graces. But in libraries I learned about good and evil and the infinite shades of gray between; weaponry, armor, costumes, and folktales of millennia past; countries I did not live in and did not think I could ever visit; countries that did not exist; monuments imaginary, vanished, and real; remarkable and unremarkable lives; oysters; trees; stars; the beauty of language; and the quotidian details of the business of writing.
There was never any question of what I would become. Changeling children raised by libraries, by and large, turn into librarians, booksellers, writers, editors, teachers, publishers, book collectors, and dreamers of dreams, even if only in secret. We never stray too far from the fairy mound.
I still do all my research through libraries. I still ask NYPL librarians suspiciously specific questions, like, “What would an oil painting from around 1910 taste like today?” They answer with enchanting gravity and sorcerous amounts of research.
In the present uncertain times, having moved house in the middle of a pandemic, I retrieve brown paper bags of books, like gifts for a brownie or domovoy, left outside a library I’ve never entered. Someday the curse will lift, and I will. I know which shelves I will be visiting, like old friends.
Oddly enough, after a year without libraries, I am learning that the libraries I loved love me back. The collections that sheltered and helped me all my life are now carrying my first novel, even my first library, the one I have no memory of. At the libraries that I grew up in, my firstborn is now being left in book returns, to live for as long as a library book lives in a clean, well-lighted, interdimensional space, shelved among adventures, satires, anthologies, and facts, which is almost as good, I think, as living there myself.
© 2021 E. Lily Yu