One of my more enjoyable outings when I was a child was to the library. If my memory holds, my mother would drop me off at the main branch near the downtown core and leave me be to partake in its literary glory for an hour or two. It was not a beautiful building by any stretch of the imagination; no Carnegie money for a lovely classic building. Instead, it was something of a squat and boxy affair that appeared to from the 70s, sporting vinyl windows and ugly exterior paneling. Yet trees surrounded it and, most importantly, the inside was full of and dominated by books.
This was before the internet, so computers did not fill the space as they too often do today. In fact, looking up a book involved a good old card catalog—the inventory had not yet been digitized. The only screens I particularly remember were those of the microfiche machines, a handy enough device that I used on occasion to check out old newsprint archives or to otherwise engage in research.
I found many a good book in that library, discovering authors whose bibliographies provided me reading experiences I remember to this day. The librarians, when I had questions, were helpful. But mostly they just let me be, and I could wander the shelves to my own delight, creating stacks of reading material that would help get me through my parents’ tight budget. I loved buying books at the B. Dalton and Waldenbooks at the mall, as well as through the book fairs at my school, but at the time our family was of limited means, and so the library in that regard was a godsend. It held a treasure trove of literary adventures free of charge.
One of my fonder memories of my time at the library was how I was free to discover whatever I wanted. There were book recommendations and displays, but left to my own devices I could look at whatever caught my fancy, including those books aimed at older audiences. It was there in the library, for instance, that I first discovered Christopher Pike, a highly popular young adult horror author. Reading the inside front cover excerpt from the first book in the Final Friends trilogy provided me a delightful thrill as a somewhere-around-ten-year-old boy. I remember feeling guilty in my perusal of it off a corner rack, the promise of violence and murder making me feel as though I was venturing into forbidden territory.
Another thing I remember from my time in that library is the expectation of quiet it held. I love the Multnomah County library system that serves as my library home today—it’s a fine one—but an expectation of silence has long been abandoned in its branches, as it seems to have been in many libraries throughout the country. Partly that is a function of the focus and space given over to computers and partly, I assume, it is simply a cultural change. But I admit that I miss that quiet, the expected hush and the particular atmosphere it lent the library. It added to the sense of the library as a special, almost sacrosanct place. It helped give it a sense of wonder and discovery, knowledge and revelation. I respected the library and its enforced quietude. The library’s purpose earned that silence; and in my respect of that demand, I earned my own presence there. It felt like an agreement, an understanding: my respect of the library as an institution would provide me, in turn, its yield of knowledge and discovery. It was always a deal I was happy to take.
It is interesting to think back on how important the library was to me. It still is, but in a different way. Today I could get by without the library and replace much of its function. I have the funds to purchase books and plenty of used outlets through local and online used bookstores to find cheap copies, and I have access to a near-infinite amount of information by way of the internet, though it is far less well curated. In my childhood my parents could not afford to purchase lots of books, even though I could and wanted to read many, and if I wanted to research a topic or try to learn some particular bit of information, the internet did not wait to fulfill my greed for information. Unless it was something I could glean from my parents or teachers, the library was my place to learn—and certain kinds of information was far less accessible in those days.
I admit to a nostalgia for all this. While I appreciate the accessibility of information these days, there is something to be said for having to work for it. And there is something to be said, as well, for a quiet library, filled with people who respect that need for silence.
Interestingly, I found something of an equivalent a few years back during a trip to Seattle. Wandering the city, I found my way to the Quest Bookshop and the attached Theosophical Society lending library. It was small and out of the way, tucked behind the bookstore and through an alcove. Yet it was beautiful. The library waited silently for me, the only other person inside a volunteer attendant sitting quietly at a computer at the front desk. Sturdy wooden bookshelves laden with hardcover occult tomes lined the walls of the room while in the middle clustered a series of plush, antique-style reading chairs flanked by end tables. A piano stood in one corner, more reading chairs nearby. Off to the left of the entrance another small room broke off with a large wooden study table and a fireplace. The attendant, in a quiet voice, welcomed me and encouraged me to look around and stay as long as I wanted. I thanked her and began to browse, eventually settling into one of the comfortable chairs with a collection of Rudolf Steiner essays, passing a half hour or so in pleasant, quiet study.
The library was something very different than that library of my youth, but it held certain similarities. It offered a kind of solemn presence; a pleasant and welcoming atmosphere; an air of offered knowledge and discovery; and the sense that it served some higher purpose, outside of commerce or entertainment but focused instead on personal growth and wisdom, on the journey of becoming a better human being. This was perhaps more true of that library in Seattle, given the Theosophical Society’s purpose, but it echoed the old feeling I had of the library of my youth. That too had been a special place aimed toward a higher purpose, rooted in the desire to be a resource for those looking to better themselves. In rediscovering such a place, I realized what I had been missing.
I wish I had easier access to that library in Seattle. In my research, I have found that there is a Theosophical Society in Portland, and they do have a lodge and apparently a lending library out in a nearby suburb. It is closed for now due to Covid, but when it reopens I am inclined to go explore and to see how it is. I suspect it will not be quite so classic and pleasant a place as the Seattle library, but I can always hope to be wrong.
I also am inclined to revisit the Central Library in downtown Portland, once it is again back open to the public. It is a large and beautiful library housed in a classic brick building, over 100 years old and gorgeous with large arched windows and a grand, wood and granite staircase spiraling up through its three stories. Given that I rarely go downtown these days, it has been quite a while since I last stepped foot in that main branch of our library system. Yet I remember from my visits to it years ago that there were large rooms that did expect a certain quiet. Coupled with the building’s beauty and grandeur, the library there felt like the library as I once remembered it—and more along the lines of that library I found in Seattle.
There’s a real appeal to finding such a place again. I do not do so much of the kind of quiet study I once did. For the most part, I have not thought much about that fact; but in remembering what once was, it appeals to what could be. The occasional trip to a quiet place intended for study and reflection, grand in its character and designed around an appeal to those looking to become their best selves, holds a particular appeal to me today. In a world so mad with energy and movement, distraction and hurry, a little time to sit at a heavy wooden table, books spread in front of me, a notepad and pen and a mind made quiet by an appropriate setting and a sprawl of laden shelves just waiting to facilitate discovery . . . well, that sounds fine indeed, particularly after the madness of this past year (even if it has been quieter than some of the years before).
It’s good to remember such things, and perhaps in the years to come I can rediscover a little bit of those library experiences of old, and perhaps make of myself a little more the person I would most like to be.