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Gina Barreca Headshot

Why I Love Libraries

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I'm in love with libraries. During only one phase of my life -- and an unlikely one at that -- was I ever uncomfortable inside their walls.

In graduate school, when I was spending way too much time in basement rooms with fluorescent bulbs humming and crackling overhead, I silently started resenting libraries, bitterly belittling them in my heart as tombs for useless thought, as mausoleums erected to preserve both the immaterial and the pointless.

I was in grad school.I was bitter. I wasn't myself. It was like having a terrible time inside an otherwise wonderful relationship--sometimes it happens, but it passes.

You see, this period of resentment towards libraries was in marked contrast to one my life's earliest happy memory: a summer afternoon, leaving a noisy house to walk to the local library.

Inside that building, quiet as a church or a hospital, I could relax and look around without fear of reprimand. Palpably different from the judgmental stillness of the cathedral or the anxious hush of a sickroom, a contagious sense of safety filled the library's rooms. This sense of safety is what I remember best. At the scaled-down children's desk, cherished because of its cartoonish size, I carefully arranged picture books across the pale wood table.

Once I started elementary school, I spent even more time at the library. Unlike some kids, I didn't mind being assigned a research paper. In fourth-grade, I had to do a report on UFOs. It was fabulous--in both literal and metaphoric senses equally--and that's when I learned how to use the huge and intimidating microfilm reader. It was sort of like learning how to operate heavy machinery designed by NASA; those machines were as big as I was.

At Oceanside High School on Long Island, we were expected to use the library to write our papers; my huge public high school was demanding and efficient. I learned about interlibrary loan and regarded it as my passport to libraries in, for example, other galaxies. I'd decoded the processes whereby a regular person such as myself was permitted to have access to books usually reserved solely for use by Real Scholars. It was great: I felt like I was getting away with something.

The library at Dartmouth, my undergraduate college was deservedly well respected. What I remember best, however, is that at the pocket-size, imitation-Tudor-style English Department library, called Sanborn House, where tea and cookies could be bought for chump change at 4 o'clock every weekday afternoon. This was a combination of all my favorite activities (almost). The idea of eating in a library was as illicit as reading a novel during a dinner party -- it seemed eccentric and (in some unspoken-rule-breaking way) marvelous.

I continued to eat while studying-- and working-- at the library in New Hall, my college at Cambridge University. That library was where I felt most at home during my years in England. I would sneak in a bag of crackers and small squares of double-Gloucester cheese, making absolutely sure that there were no crumbs left (my fear of library mice being strong and supported by powerful evidence). I was a devoted worker; my sin was, I believe, a venial one.

By the time I was working on my Ph.D., however, I was back living in New York and tearing through bagel-and-fried-egg sandwiches before running up the steps of the NYPL. Maybe I'd simply had too much of it, but entrances into both large and small reading rooms became less inviting. There were days when I despaired; at certain low points, I harangued myself with the certainty that I was incapable of writing a laundry list, let alone a dissertation.

Only after my first book --``They Used to Call Me Snow White But I Drifted'' --appeared in the card catalog (remember those?) in 1991 did I start to feel at home again. Maybe I felt better being the stacks again because I could place a book on the shelf rather than relying solely on act of removing one.

I have returned to being delighted by hours spent roving in the stacks. Mastering the Internet has been amusing but I haven't fallen in love with it.

It's still the weight of the book that calms me, the feel of the paper under my fingertips as I turn the page that grabs me. This pleasure is sharpened by understanding that what I love at this moment has only been loaned to me. I can possess it fully but temporarily -- just like life.


This piece first appeared in the Hartford Courant.