How Public Libraries Save Us

My mother called from my bedroom doorway. “The mobile library’s here. Get up now or it’ll be gone on you.”

It was Monday morning — always Monday when the mobile library came to our rural village and parked across the street from our house. The van arrived at about 11:00 a.m. and stayed for a half hour.

In my native Ireland, the public libraries are run by the local county, not the city or town. Within each county, each town and city has its own library or libraries, though in smaller or de-populated hamlets, the days and hours are often limited.

That fall, 1982, I had just graduated from my Dublin college. My cap `n gowngraduation day had filled me, not with joy or pride or excitement, but with a terrible homesickness for the city life I had grown to love and now had to leave.

Back then, Ireland was hurtling toward a nationwide economic recession that would spawn yet another emigration wave.

Still, that summer, my college friends had landed jobs, while the only thing my applications had generated was a stack of rejections. As I squished my city self back into my girlhood bedroom, as I read each of those canned, hand-written job rejections (‘We regret to say …), I watched the shame on my parents’ faces.

In a country village, a smartie pants college daughter is a source of pride. But a smartie pants college daughter who ends up unemployed? This can do serious damage to a family’s social standing.

I still remember my mother’s startled sadness as she stood there in my bedroom, watching her second daughter sleepily pulling on a pair of sweat pants and hunting for a pair of shoes. Then, my library books in hand, I rushed down the stairs and crossed from our house to the grey library vanwith the county logo on the side.

I’m sure I looked like what I had now become: A disheveled young woman who, if it weren’t for that library, would still be fast asleep in my twin bed — at least until noon.

Depressed. Nowadays, it’s tempting to tag my 20-year-old self, to tick off the diagnostic boxes: Sleeping a lot. Eating a lot. Withdrawn. Irascible. Increased weight and lost interest in previously enjoyed activities (except reading).

Depressed. It’s way too facile, too modern a word for the melancholia that I had wrapped around myself.

The mobile librarian nodded a silent ‘hello’ to her only village patron. Shewas never in any great hurry and, as the van only came every other Monday, I took my time selecting a stack of hardcovers that would, I hoped, see me through the next fortnight (two weeks).

Without a life of my own, and amid the unspoken but palpable pressure to move out and get a job and life, I took on the only lives I liked and knew: theexotic fictional lives that played out in those book pages.

Half-way through that winter, I got a call from a rural parochial school in aplace I had never heard of. I was to be the long-term substitute teacher for a woman on maternity leave and, if it all worked out, I had a real shot at a permanent, salaried job teaching first and second grades.

Oh, my. Doesn’t this all sound so “Little House on the Prairie,” but without any of the smiley, made-for-television wholesomeness? The school and parish were over two hours’ from my parents’ house — well far enough to promise emancipation and adulthood. So one Monday morning, I got up early to pack a bag and catch two cross-country buses.

That first year, I lived in a studio flat at the top of a ramshackle house on the main street in that town in the middle of the country. There was, of course, no residential telephone. No TV. No giggly or partying or faux erudite college friends.

But there was a public library — this time a real, bricks-and-mortar building that was open a few evenings per week. I discovered that the librarian and I had remarkably similar reading tastes, and when new books came in, she sometimes reserved them for me on a hunch that I would like them.

Her hunches were never wrong.

I never told Mary, my librarian friend this, but often, as I leaned over the circulation desk chatting, the sound of my own voice — the adult, non-classroom version — startled me. Yes. Except for those library visits and my stop at the corner shop, my 20-year old life had become that isolated.

Still, isolation (I see now) had its perks. Without a TV or a record player, with little or no social life, the longer and denser the book, the better I liked it.

Nowadays, as I balance work and home and writing and a trillion digital distractions, I marvel at that small-town library’s collection, and what a kid like me managed to read each week.

I devoured most of the works of Heinrich Böll, the German post-World War II novelist. I read fat biographies of Maud Gonne and Agatha Christie. Short story collections. Novellas. Novels galore. I wept when I read “The Well of Loneliness,” a heartbreaking and previously banned love story about an illicit and banned lesbian relationship — a topic and a lifestyle that were taboo and illegal in 1980s Ireland.

Now I live three thousand miles away from my childhood village and that town where I tried to launch my adult life. Now, my hair is beginning to grey, and, this fall, after 30 years away from Ireland, I’m fixing to become a U.S. citizen.

These days I’m thankful to have the disposable income to purchase every book I want to read and will read for the rest of my life.

Financially, I no longer need to borrow books that other people have read before me, where someone has left light pencil marks in the margins or cookie crumbs in the crevices.

But ask any loyal and lifer library patron: It’s not about the price tag. Instead, it’s about being part of a virtual and often very real community of readers. It’s about remembering who and what was there for you during the low and lonely times of your life.

I believe that our public libraries are among the last bastions of real bonum publicum or public good.

So I need and love my library. I always did. I always will.

Irish author, workshop leader in Boston area. Fifth book, “Green and Other Essays” just released. More at www.ainegreaney.com

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