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Book Sniffer, People Watcher: Why I Love the Library

Dani Motze​

I returned to my table to gather my things and a woman had settled in the chair next to mine. As I leaned in, I first noticed her stubble and then her thickly penciled eyebrows, and then her giant, gaudy gold pin.  I tried to get her attention. She tried to ignored me. So I went ahead,  “I have a pin almost exactly like that, I almost wore today. And I really love your hat.”  


She smiled with relief, and the stranger told me that she had been keeping an eye on my things (and, that tomorrow was another day, another opportunity to feature my pin). I did. 


Sometimes while I’m looking up a book in the online category, then searching for it on the 2nd floor,  I pretend that I’m on a secret, important mission - always, for some reason, so sure it won’t be there, elated when it is. And sometimes along the way I stumble across the exact book I didn’t even know that I was looking for, but it found me anyway (or the reference librarian helped me out). 


On the second floor, I sneak a glance to the right, to the left, and tip a book out from its place; I smell deeply, like a wine drinker: hints of vanilla with undertones of grass.


A few years ago I went to the branch on Perkiomen Ave. to lead a youth program, entered, and immediately remembered: that specific mix of stale air conditioning air, old rug, and old books. This is the branch me and my mom  used to walk to when we lived first on Cotton Street, and then on Fairview Ave.

Its high ceilings and tall shelves sheltered us while I searched for and found the girls with whom I’d become who I am: The Babysitters Club and Nancy Drew.


I worked a traditional corporate 9-5 for a year in a smooth beige cubicle. I survived with daily walks around the downtown and adjacent neighborhoods, and regular trips to the library, where I could touch and smell and hear and see life and people living their lives, wondering what brought each of them there on that specific day.


I know that not everyone feels welcome inside a library, like I do, and that libraries around the country are working to change that, and to take the library outside, to the people, in addition to finding other ways to make them more inclusive. In today’s day and age, with smart phones and e-readers, is the library building itself, the actual brick-and-mortar still relevant?



3rd Space & Social Infrastructure


Adam Gopnik writes about European café culture of past in his piece, published in The New Yorker, "One More Cup of Coffee" and we might copy and paste his description of why people went to cafés onto at least one answer of why the brick-and-mortar library is still so important, why I used to walk there on my lunch breaks.


“What matters is not the words of the person at the next table but the feeling of nearness – the sense of being able to carve out an identity among other identities, of being potentially private in a public space and casually public even while lost in private reveries.” 

Cities often use hostile architecture to prevent certain unwanted people from loitering in “public spaces;" a common example is little metal spikes on a concrete ledge, or an intentional lack of benches (outside the Main branch you’ll notice that the front entrance’s concrete ‘rail’ along the stately steps is curved, perhaps, to prevent sitting or laying). But inside the library is filled with tables and chairs, inviting you, meant for you, to sit. And unlike at a cafe, you don’t need to buy even a cup of coffee to do so.


I watched two people at the table next to me. I couldn’t quite figure out their relationship, maybe tutor and student, maybe client and social worker. Another person had left her bag on one of the chairs, and came back to retrieve it. The man apologized, he hadn’t seen it when he sat down.  


“You don’t have to apologize,” she said, “This is a library. And you can sit wherever you want.”


In 99% Invisible podcast episode, 346, "Palaces for the People," Eric Klineberg discusses his book by the same name and considers public libraries as “social infrastructure,” the vital places in our community that not only provide specific services, but also keep us connected and whose presence has been proven to increase community health and wellness statistics (other examples of social infrastructure include the longstanding local grocery and community centers),


"Most of the time people go into libraries they realize that they are being respected and dignified and honored brings out the best in us," said Klineberg. "If we want to support the kind of social life...that we all need to live well and be better connected with each other we're going to have to find a way to invest in it."

A few years ago I was at the Main branch browsing, and a little kid came in and set off the buzzers. He looked around bewildered and maybe frightened, and Jon, the well-known security guard, walked over and gently led him to the front desk. I ran into Jon that night at Schell's and got to tell him what I had seen, that it would have been easy to stay sitting behind his desk, and many of us would have. I often feel frustrated waiting for him to come open the bathroom for me, and hate that they feel like they must keep it locked, but Jon always remembers my name, and the names of most of the regular patrons; he once told me it was a gift given to him by God.


And, you don’t need to tell a library staffer, libraries also meet other community needs, “Unfortunately, libraries have been these institutions of last resort for people who sort of slip through the cracks in our safety net," author Eric Klineberg said.


The library is sheer abundance. That there are more books than I could read in my lifetime makes me

feel safe and deeply held, the feeling I have when I swim in a lake. At the library, I always feel like there is enough for me. And when I come home from the library, I arrange my books on my kitchen counter, like I used to arrange them on my porch on Saturday mornings, running my fingers over them and considering which one I’ll read first.


I once told an upper-middle-class acquaintance that I had spent the afternoon hanging out at the library, people-watching the weirdos. She was clearly uncomfortable that I would call poor people weirdos, even though she definitely did not spend her time at the public library with those weirdos, and not everyone who uses the library is poor, which was her assumption, and even though I was at the time. She asked me if maybe I was the one who was the weirdo, and I told her that obviously, yes, that was a given.  Because I’m a book-sniffer, people-watcher, and I fucking love the library.

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