There was only one entrance off of the main arterial into the library parking lot. It wasn’t quite 10:00 AM yet, but spaces were filling up fast.
On foot, bebopping up the sidewalk, dressed completely in black, ear buds stuffed under his stocking cap, was the happiest Goth in creation. His belly jiggled over his black jeans, keeping time with his silent/screaming music.
A young mother followed close behind, a stack of books awkwardly vised under one arm, and she clutched her baby with the other, cautiously balancing both loads. Both visitors gathered at the same sealed entrance. The time was 9:58.
Old, young, the well dressed, alongside tattooed Walmart shoppers were preparing for their morning visit to the public library. How wonderful.
As the doors finally slid apart, this mass of incongruous patrons flocked inside, striding with purpose and authority to their appointed places. A no-nonsense aura filled the air as each card holder claimed their chair, booth, or computer to commence their daily routine. If ever there existed a bastion of perfect democracy it is America’s neighborhood lending library.
Visits make a lot sense. The facility is clean, climate controlled and the interior is well lit for reading and research.
Libraries offer a multitude of services for their diverse patrons. For those suffering unemployment this destination gets them out of the house, providing an opportunity to search job openings on the internet, and perhaps check out a DVD or two at no cost. For the troubled homeless, the safe interior means sanctuary for rest, or to catch up on some reading, without fear of harassment or victimization. Mothers with young children make use of programs such as story-time, organized games and crafts–providing a respite from too many hours of home-bound togetherness.
My own elderly parents check out their limit of books every two weeks at their neighborhood library. They, too, wait in the parking lot–my Dad’s Impala idling in a disabled spot by 9:55 AM. When those doors glide apart Mom and Dad, canes in hand, hobble as quickly as they can, joining the solid wave of democratic folk utilizing their library privileges.
Benjamin Franklin cemented the true intention of America’s experiment in democratic equality. This famous civic innovator understood the power of public institutions to tie people together from all walks of American society. In was, in fact, Franklin who established the first lending library in Philadelphia back in the day. As a true visionary, Mr. Franklin set the course for general literacy, by establishing these literary gathering places. If he could see what I saw in that library parking lot, his legacy still vibrantly active, he would certainly feel most gratified.
We can all stay as long as we like at the library, as long as we follow some common rules of conduct–just like out in society. And librarians can be real tough on people for violating standards of behavior. They stop kids from running through the stacks, enforce time limits on computer use, insisting internet hogs log off for the next guy, quiet the boorishly loud, with their self important conversations. In the end, their policing allows the rest of us to make the best use of the place.
A library card is the ultimate equalizer–leveling the richest to the poorest among us. No amount of status or money can keep the rest of us in the neighborhood out, because no matter who you might be, my card equals yours.
Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” a memoir. Also available on Kindle.