Memoir: Sanctuary Library

Most people assume that all staff that work in libraries are librarians, but the majority are a support staff of: library assistants, aides and pages. Yes there are library pages! I’ve been in love with libraries all my life, I see them as one of the last outposts of government sponsored local community support. They serve as a liaison portal for social services, schools and non profits. Where else can you go that’s relatively clean/indoors that you can go to for free, all day and evening?

My first job during high school was at the Towson Public Library in Maryland. I worked in the back, away from the public, in Cataloging, alphabetizing and processing new books with my coworkers, Kim and Hildie. Because we were isolated away from the public, we sat together in cubicles like a knitting circle and chatted the whole time we were sorting through index cards, remember the card catalogs? They were the old school way to check out books before libraries became digital.

Kim was in the 10th grade in high school and I was in the 12th grade. She had a glamorous face with wide expressive features, long blonde hair and a loud, scratchy voice. I think she might have partied with the Beastie Boys pre-“Ill Communication” and/or with Johnny Depp when he was filming, “Cry-Baby” in Baltimore. The eccentric director of the film, John Waters infamously made parodies of Baltimore’s marginalized subculture of outsiders, (Divine was his transsexual diva muse. I’m not a fan of Waters, I think he exploited Divine).

She also once met William Hurt, of “The Big Chill”. Kim said he was shocked that she didn’t recognize him as a celebrity, “You really don’t know who I am? I’m famous.” but that’s what he gets for hitting on an teenager, she was probably in elementary school during the height of his acting career! Admittedly Kim looked sophisticatedly older and was at a bar with a fake ID, but he still sounded like a full of himself, narcissist.

Kim and I worked under Hildie’s expert supervision. Hildie was the classic, silver haired, bespectacled seemingly stern, librarian. She had an East Coast tough as nails exterior with a soft hearted interior. Once she even caught staff having sex in the staff restroom, (after hours but still!). She had to pull them apart to make them stop! Libraries tend to hire liberal staff but that incident was bizarre.

This was the pre-tech world where everything was tactile: card catalogs in little wooden drawers with golden handles, books lined up in symmetrical stacks surrounded by a church like-peaceful silence, librarians with shining pearl necklaces and hair bound up in a coiled gray bun. I miss that world where libraries were formal, structure-oriented places. When I was a child, my older sister took me to the public library when she was in a good mood. I borrowed the “Choose Your Own Adventure” paperback books while she borrowed celebrity biographies about Brooke Shields, Victoria Principle and Grace Kelly. The library had a grand, sweeping entranceway, a winding, circular ramp that echoed sounds upwards; I always felt important walking through those doors into my literary sanctuary. Libraries were a perfect refuge, an introvert’s paradise for self-taught knowledge.

Now in modern libraries there are computers sprawled everywhere, with groups of either rambunctious children playing video games or sporadically erratic homeless patrons from one floor to the other, here comes trouble! An innocent, “Sorry we can’t extend your computer time.” can incite a violent reaction. Staff have been hit with staplers, bookends, books and chairs by raging patrons, it’s a sad but true possibility. When I worked at the San Francisco paging desk, I purposely hid sharp scissors and potentially dangerous office supplies that could be used as makeshift weapons, they had just converted to using a computerized software system. Remnants of the shushing culture clashed with the new community living room environment of: sleeping/eating/shouting/bathing patrons. The stacks were often “decorated” with greasy remains of gnawed chicken bones, curled silver sardine cans heavy with rank fish oil, stiffened hole-punctured socks that reminded me of death’s rigor mortise—what else, used underwear, needles, Burger King wrappers, the tiny yellow library pencils bound together with rubber bands and nails (used as self-protective weapon by a homeless woman from New Orleans, a Hurricane Kartrina refugee).

The homeless are homeless because our society allows it, not caring is the norm of business as usual, Capitalism, divide and conquer. Wealthy blue bloods never stopped feeding and draining, like vampires, some legends are truth hidden in plain view. The only thing trickling down from Reaganomics was Working and Middle class blood, sweat and tears, never equality or fair share. Ronald Reagan (the former actor from “Bedtime for Bonzo“) was the US president that drastically cut funding for social services. All the mental hospitals were shut down and the mentally incapacitated were released to live on the streets. Social workers even encouraged the homeless to utilize libraries as “shelters”. The homeless population need compassionate support, resources and a place to live indoors, but libraries are not the band aid solution, they were never designed for that purpose. Libraries are sanctuaries, but they’re not mental hospitals. It’s shameful that such a wealthy nation allows their homeless to live in squalor on the sidewalks and under freeway overpasses while judging the poverty of third world countries. Go to San Francisco to see the abysmal wealth divide.

Some think libraries are archaic, outdated spaces; but in reality they’re needed now more than ever. They counter balance the rampant greed and disconnection in our status and wealth obsessed, economically inequitable world. I still work for libraries because after all this time they’ve remained dedicated to serving the public, absolutely free of charge. Call me a nerd, but I’m proud to be of service to the people, not the almighty dollar!

28 Comments

  1. Fortunately, in my small rural county, our truly homeless population is minuscule. It’s not unreasonable to let the four or five men hang out on our couches all day during the winter. Given the libertarian nature of my super-conservative town, it’s amazing that there is any government support for our homeless population, and in fact, all services are provided by nonprofits, but the county government funds many of these organizations.

    About five years ago, I too, wondered if libraries were still relevant for the general population. This was a worry of mine as I’d prefer to crack open a hardcover than read an ebook any day. But I now know that I’m not alone in that preference, and my wife is an avid consumer of eBooks and eAudiobooks borrowed from our library. From my seat, it looks like government funding in Pennsylvania is in danger. The state hasn’t increased its library allocation in over ten years, and the county is torn in a thousand directions with funding priorities. I worry that library employment is a party I’ve arrived at after the cops have already shown up.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That’s sad to hear, libraries fill a much needed social gap in my opinion. My local library recently got funding (Measure D), which allowed for much needed promotions and expanded services, we went on strike last year for a week and I think it helped to raise awareness that we needed support. All the wasted money spent on military needs to be reallocated. I started liking audiobooks, enjoy streaming films and music but actual books are still my preference, to avoid the eye strain of ebooks and also wanting a break from the lit screen. I hope things shift in Pennsylvania in favor of libraries, (I grew up in Maryland).

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that’s the perception that libraries are outdated, but I think people still want real, physical books, materials and in person interaction. If everything was all tech/robotic I think that marks the beginning of the end of human society as we know it. I think humans need connection with each other, it seems like we’re so isolated nowadays.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We appear to be in a tech driven society but there are people who still love reading actual physical books. Hopefully there is still some hope for our society to be more connected.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love libraries especially the old ones and not so much the modern design ones. I love the feel and smell of old books too!

    Wonderfully written article! May I reblog it and link it back to you on MiddleMe?

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Enjoyed what you’ve written here. In my hometown, they’ve built 3 new libraries with more technological features though they also have more physical books than the old libraries. The library was my favorite hang out spot as a child and teenager. My brother works in the library as well. He enjoys being in service for the youth.😊 He’s created a few programs. They treat him as family

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Theresaly, I’m glad you enjoyed my post and that your brother works for the library. It really is like a family of people who want to provide service to the community. He sounds like a cool person who likes helping others. Thanks for your comment🙂

      Like

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