As a freshman in college, I had to put in volunteer hours as a condition to a scholarship, and I hurried to apply at the local public library. At that time I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up, only that it would involve books. “Librarian” had crossed my mind a few times. But I didn’t decide until I was standing by a file cabinet behind the desk of that library, sorting file cards and watching the proper library staff interact with patrons. I feel good here, I found myself thinking. This is a safe space. I would be comfortable and happy working in a place like this.
That’s no faint praise. Whether it’s the ADHD or the potential ASD or I’m just a plain Highly Sensitive Person, I don’t get a feeling like that in many places. I feel environments too acutely to be comfortable much anywhere. Places aren’t necessarily uncomfortable in specifics like too hot or cold, too bright or dark, too noisy or quiet. I’ve been in libraries that have been every one of those six at one time or another. No, mostly places just feel too angry, too snooty, too stressed, too clinical. Libraries, on the other hand, feel welcoming, promising, and protective.
Maybe that’s just part and parcel of our mission: to be the port of access for all people to learn and grow. Libraries should be welcoming, because we claim to uphold equal access to everyone regardless of social standing. Libraries should be promising, because we hold a seemingly endless well of stories and information: there’s so much to discover. And libraries are protective: over and over I hear stories about how the library was and is a place of refuge for bullied and abused kids, lonely older folks, homeless people—anyone who just needs a place to go. Never mind hearing stories, I was one of those bullied kids. I liked to seek refuge in the library, because the shelves were full of friends.
But on the other hand, I’d never been to a library when I was two and a half years old, and I sat on my first “big girl bed” (a mattress on the floor), which happened to butt up against a bookcase. I liked that bookcase. The books weren’t even all mine—I remember some Time-Life home improvement encyclopedias on a lower shelf. To be honest, it wasn’t all books, either—that’s where I kept my blocks and Fisher-Price houses, too. But it felt nice, to be near that bookcase. It felt welcoming, and promising, and protective.
So I don’t know if the mission of libraries has simply rubbed off on bookcases, or if libraries give off such an aura because they’re full of bookcases, but either way, bookcases make a room feel better.
I’m writing this in a room with a wall of bookshelves. The woman we bought the house from had been using them to display her extensive rolling pin collection. We use them for books. We added two more bookcases to the room, and still they’re overflowing. It’s a functional home library, but to avoid confusion since I work in an actual public library, we call it, not the library, but The Book Room. I have my desk here, and a cushy chair in the corner tucked into the fiction section. That’s My Chair. It’s my place to sit and be comfy, surrounded by bookshelves.
But recently that little corner has gained some competition. This summer we repainted the living room and bought a new TV stand and a couple of matching bookcases, and suddenly I find myself spending most of my time there. The living room feels so much more cozy than it used to, and I know exactly why: because now it has bookshelves.
It’s ironic, because there aren’t any actual books on the living room bookshelves, unless you count photo albums and school yearbooks. There are games, DVDs, music, and a stereo. But the magic power of bookshelves still shines out, radiating the room with its protective promise. I think it’s something about the height: larger than you are and yet inherently good, like a guardian watching over you.
My husband suggested that, after we got the new bookcases, we might think about getting rid of some of the old, worn ones. I countered this suggestion with the blankest of uncomprehending looks. Why would anyone ever get rid of bookshelves? I see clearing out other sorts of furniture to make space, or refusing junk that will pile up in your house. But bookshelves? There is no such thing as too many bookshelves. They make any house a castle, any place a home.