Now that I have worked in libraries for more than 10 years, I thought I would share my thoughts that not being a library patron anymore makes me slightly envious. Sure, I have walked into public libraries for the last seven years on the Central Coast and used these libraries just as you would have for books, movies, music, and other resources. That said, I have not had that “aha” moment of seeing new materials on the shelves in many years—mainly, because the San Luis Obispo County Library staff and I order and see most everything before in professional journals and catalogs.
Don’t get me wrong; I love my job and love working for the people of the community, but I envy you. It’s kind of like your birthday or treasure hunt. Hopefully, when walking into a library, you will be surprised by what you might get or find. For me, this experience holds much joy and wonder. I would argue that few places hold such mysticism. With three new libraries under construction on the Central Coast, I thought I would share my first experiences of libraries some 30 years ago.
I grew up in a small town of about 2,000 people in Western New York. The Youngstown Free Public Library serves as the setting for me, then a 12-year-old boy. When you are a 12 years old, there are few things that bring you such joy as your budding freedom. That said, there is only a certain amount of freedom a few dollars a week in allowance might buy you in a small town. Most of my time was spent burning off boundless amounts of energy, which meant poppin’ wheelies, catching passes, and exploring the boundaries of the town.
When imagination and exploration subsided, my friends and I often parked our bikes and rushed up the stairs to our local public library. It was set in a large early 20th century brick schoolhouse that at the time served as recreation center, town hall, and library. As you can imagine as three or four hyperventilating tomfoolery-filled boys walked into the library, we were met with a startled look from the local librarian but always with a welcoming “Hello, boys.”
If it was during the school year, we would usually have homework and, for me, being away from home was always a better place to study. Note this if you are a student or parent. If you have trouble concentrating on homework at home, try your local library. In my case, I would best my geometry problems or memorize my new vocabulary first. Then, having 45 minutes till curfew, I would start a new adventure. For me, my love was and still is the non-fiction section. I would be engrossed and love to scan all the books with those odd numbers and decimal points on the spines. These glaring titles of history, science, economics, and sociology all lassoed my curiosity—not to mention my admiration for the order in which knowledge was presented. Then I would stop and focus and pull books out one at a time on the revolutionary war or religion or astronomy. I would scan the artistry of the book first and then immediately look at the cover page and see that it was published in far off places like New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and even London.
I never would have encountered these topics anywhere else and in such wonderful depth. It is here I first encountered a library’s natural ability to expose its explorers to new topics. Poetry of the 19th century? Sure, I’m 12, I watch Knight Rider and the A-Team, I’ll try it out. It set my mind on fire. I would use an atlas of the War of 1812 to refine my childhood exploration and enhance my imagination of how battles in my neighborhood streets were fought.
Maybe I would look up “dog” in an encyclopedia and, while learning countless unknown facts about the animal, I would then be fortunate to expand my lexicon with the state tree of Missouri, the dogwood; the capital city of Qatar, Doha; the political life of Bob Dole; and a really cool article on dolls, which for me, gave me insight into a toy I rarely played with, might poke fun at, but now learned to admire.
My imagination soared as my neuropaths were stimulated and thrilled. But before I knew it, the 45 minutes were up. How could I continue this adventure? You’re right, with my library card. With that card, I would have freedom and access to check out any books I wanted. I would continue the adventure at home. This free resource allowed me to stock up on fuel to keep a roaring flame continuing throughout my life. I will never forget walking into a library and how it changed my life.
There are 15 branch libraries in the SLO County library system. Please visit slolibrary.org to start your adventure.
Joe Laurenzi is the regional librarian of the North County and can still be seen caretaking the non-fiction section at the Atascadero library, ensuring the adventures continue for others. Send comments to the executive editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.