How a Year Without My Library Has Changed Me
Lauren Du Graf on the Library as a Metaphor and Method
The last time I saw the inside of a library was the afternoon of March 12. Crocuses were peeking out of the ground. The neighbors were out for a stroll, the sidewalks strangely dense with pedestrians. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think it was a holiday.
The looming pandemic had propelled me out of Brooklyn and back to my hometown of Seattle. Mask wearing was underway, though it all still felt a bit hypothetical. It wasn’t until I walked into the library that day—the same stately, brick Carnegie library I grew up around the corner from, a branch I’d been going to since I was in grade school—that it hit me.
I walked inside and smelled the air, the scent of old pages from my childhood. And then it dawned on me—if I could smell the books through my mask, what other particles were also floating in? All of a sudden, paranoia. I sensed germs everywhere. Right next to me, over across the room, on the book of essays I was holding. There was a dispenser of hand sanitizer at the front—a comically puny intervention, when you think about it, against the manifold surfaces of a library book, an object defined by its passage through countless, anonymous fingers. I asked a librarian if I could use the restroom to wash my hands. Sorry, she said. Restrooms are closed. The next day, Seattle’s chief librarian announced the closure of all branches.
Partial services have since resumed. Materials are quarantined for three days after they are returned. A handful of library restrooms have reopened, a critical service in a city in the midst of a dire homelessness crisis. (A crisis inseparable from the rise of the city’s largest employer, the erstwhile online bookseller Amazon.) But ever since that spring afternoon, the library has existed for me mostly as an abstraction, one of several places that my mind knows but my body no longer experiences. A phantom limb. I wistfully place online holds and schedule curbside pick-ups. I swipe through e-books on my phone with the twitchy impatience of an online dating app. It is a privilege someone is paying for, and for that I’m grateful; I’d rather read a book in a mobile browser than not. But it’s not the same.
“I go to libraries because they are the Ocean,” wrote Susan Howe, who compared her experience of libraries to Thoreau’s woods—wild, ripe for exploration. When Howe writes about libraries and archives, she uses words like “mystic” and “telepathy”.
The internet is vast and it is deep, but not mystic. Our experience of libraries, as Howe reminds us, is physical and material. The way we encounter an idea there can be traced to the moment we find it on a shelf, the warm light that hits your thigh as you sit in the oak reading chair with the flat, broad arms while strangers drift in and out of the periphery.
A library exists apart from the tempo of commerce. It is a place where, through quiet encounters with otherness, we are able to peaceably locate the edges of our finitude.
I had intuited all of this before understanding it, as is the case for those of us who come to love libraries as children. Howe herself was raised by parents who came from different worlds. She felt torn between her mother, who was Irish, and her father, a New Englander from Boston. In the library, Howe found a system of classification where everything had its place, a home for putting together the fragments.
Like Howe, I felt riven by nature. My parents came from different worlds—my mother, who was Chinese-Filipino, grew up in Manila, while my white father was from San Francisco. Sometimes it felt like there were warring factions within me. I longed for a place where the pieces of me could nestle peacefully alongside one another, like books on a shelf. A place without conflict. A place everything made sense.
Howe’s father, though, was a professor at Harvard Law School known for lecturing “in perfect sentences without using notes,” she told The Paris Review. Her mother was a writer and an editor once cast in a play by W.B. Yeats.
I was always jealous of people like that. Neither of my parents had library cards. English was my mother’s third language. Had we lived a few blocks further away, I probably would have never gone. But the library still owed me membership, and I grew to act like it. I met friends from the neighborhood there and we traded notes on young adult fiction. One summer, I won a contest for borrowing the most books in my grade. But as I started to read more challenging books, it became more difficult to keep pace with the due dates. Fines mounted. I slid the checkout cards down the heating vents of my bedroom, hoping to erase the obligation of return. It didn’t work. Other interests intervened, like being cool and finding a boyfriend. Around middle school, I stopped going to the library. I didn’t return much until college, mostly to watch movies that had to be screened for class or meet a study group before a big test.
That all changed in grad school, when I began dating a historian. He loved old papers and old magazines, old diners and old records. He kept everything: pamphlets you’d find at the front of a radical bookstore, photos of someone else’s family from a flea market, flyers for a club night left under your windshield wiper. Everything was archival. He was finishing up his doctorate and I was starting mine—in between classes, we’d meet for an espresso at the coffee shop near the university library.The internet is vast and it is deep, but not mystic. Our experience of libraries, as Howe reminds us, is physical and material.
He made me love the library again, too. He showed me new databases, taught me how to use interlibrary loan. I learned about special collections and archives, how to use finding aids. He took me to lectures and exhibits at the library, and I watched with pride as he gave lectures and mounted his own exhibits at the library, too. He checked out books for me and even returned them on occasion. He was much better at getting the books back on time than I was (due dates didn’t give him a rash).
In the summer, we went on road trips to archives. Sometimes, we sat next to each other as we unpacked the delicate contents of file folders in the reading room. He’d lock in with intense focus, occasionally glancing up at me to flash a piece of ephemera. An ad for a feminist printing press. A cover of Vegetarian Times from the 1970s. At the Library of Congress, we shuffled through the metal detectors together, checking our bags and coats and placing our laptops and cords in see-through plastic. We walked the long, underground tunnel from the reading room to the John Adams building, dining in the bland, poorly lit government cafeteria.
We broke up a few years ago. He let me store my books in his basement for a few months. We hadn’t acquired much as a couple. After I came back to pick up the last of my books, there wasn’t much left to do, except go to the YMCA to dissolve our joint gym membership, our only formal union. We had been together for eight years. Our relationship was like an overdue library book, well past its return date. But the intangibles of a relationship can never be returned. After we broke up, the practice of the archive was mine to keep.
A few years ago, I was in the basement of the Beinecke at Yale, researching the writer and editor Dorothy Norman. I ran across a letter written to her by Anaïs Nin, whose work Norman introduced to American audiences. Norman was the only one who believed in her diaries, Nin wrote.
It was a small letter written on pale blue paper that began matter-of-factly. “Dear Dorothy Norman: Here is the boat I live on, and a photograph of me.” Neatly affixed to the top was a tiny, postage stamp-sized photo of a large boat with Nin, rather petite, standing atop it in a smartly tailored dress. Folded into the letter was another portrait of Nin in a garden, glamorously draped in a cape.A library exists apart from the tempo of commerce. It is a place where, through quiet encounters with otherness, we are able to peaceably locate the edges of our finitude.
Nin wasn’t the sort of writer I researched in graduate school. High on macho philosophical calisthenics, I looked askance at writers like Nin as unserious, her transgressive intimacy as a gimmicky sort of provocation. But that sort of cynicism always bore the weight of a lie. In my private library of affection, Nin never left the shelf.
It was as if the letter and the photos were addressed to me and me alone. The sort of “mystic documentary telepathy” Howe had described struck me with such a sublime force that I still feel in my chest when I think about it. I had previously seen her through the lens of her love affair with Henry Miller. But in that moment I saw a woman who lived alone in a boat moored on the Seine, wanting to be understood. So much fell away in that moment—the layers of interpretation, my own anxieties about being perceived as a rigorous thinker. What was left was her solitary, determined voice.
I took a picture of the letter, returned it to the folder, and filed it in the box. I was glad to be alone in that moment. I could see it with my own eyes.
The crocuses are back in bloom. I’ve had four seasons to consider the dimensions of my personal cosmos. The faces and places my heart turns to, like a flower to sun, long after they are gone.
The library is more than a place. It’s also a method, useful in times of absence, loss, and surrender. You have things for a while, you give them back. There’s no obligation to finish what you check out. You don’t have to keep something for it to be yours.