Posted by: bluesyemre | July 7, 2022

The world gets worse, but public libraries are forever

At any one time now, my family has 40 items out (the library limit).

I look around my living room and all I see are books, so many books precariously balanced on dusty IKEA shelves. Some are just rolled up and jammed into any old crevice, like cannelloni in a baking tray.

There’s the front row, books with fun covers such as Le Petomane, a thin paperback about the famous French flatulist, pictured half-hovering in the midst of his act, or Richard Pryor’s Pryor Convictions, all strategically placed to entice houseguests that never come. Or others I’ve decided I need easy access to, either for information (Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise) or inspiration (The Nick Tosches Reader).

Behind those is a netherworld of junk. Beautiful junk. That copy of Glamorama a friend gifted me 20 years ago that I’m still only three-quarters through, Julie Doucet comics, collections of film criticism from Kael and Rosenbaum. I’ll probably never revisit this stuff – mainly because if I pull one book out, the whole thing tumbles like Jenga – but I like knowing it’s there.

It’s a decorative choice, essentially. Minimalism is for deranged people, people with frantic minds; clean lines and things out of sight must calm their nerves. I’m docile, so my preferred aesthetic is clutter. Things everywhere is fun, comforting. I’ll be sitting on the couch watching TV and catch a glimpse of my overstuffed shelves and I’ll think, “Look at all that cool stuff.” Except lately it’s, “Wait, why do I have all this stuff? Why did I spend so much money on Beat poetry?”

I know why I’ve been thinking this: it’s because I rediscovered the public library. My partner and I started going there following the birth of our first kid a few years ago, mainly for their “Rhyme Time” classes where children run around in circles while a librarian mangles the clapping rhythm on Bingo Was His Name-O. But then we remembered: the library has all the books. For free. What’s the point of buying the new Sally Rooney, or holding on to two copies of Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, when it’s all right there at the library? For free!

Our local is Leichhardt Library, deep in the bowels of Norton Street’s Italian Forum, aka the saddest retail space in Sydney. A rusty fountain (no water) of Dante Alighieri looks over “for lease” signs in shop windows, while Italian tumbleweeds roll by the occasional Italian rat. But there in the corner, like an oasis, is the Biblioteca.

At any one time now, my family has 40 items out (the library limit), books stacked up on our bedside tables, kids CDs strewn around the car. Most things have a three-week borrowing block, but the library doesn’t care – return it in six months and they’ll just be like, “Oh thank you, so that’s where that was!” because librarians are angels.

People think libraries are old-fashioned – all that enforced silence and Dewey Decimal organisation – but libraries understand the internet now. Did you know you can just reserve books online, and they’ll put them aside for you to pick up? Let’s say you’ve heard a glowing review of Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel and you’re keen to read it; just search for it on the library’s database and put a reservation on it! Can’t find it? Tell the library and they’ll just BUY A COPY for their collection. It’s like having a kind, desperate, rich friend.

Yes, sometimes there’s a long queue on the reservations. For example, I’ve been waiting about three months to read the acclaimed memoir Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (indie musician Japanese Breakfast), but I’m still just number 47 of 62 in the queue. That means 46 people, probably slow-readers all of them, are still ahead of me ever touching that book. That’s a lot of people to knock off just to save $30 and some storage space at home. But buy it on Amazon or Audible? I think I’d rather be a murderer.

The library’s online aspect is convenient, but there’s also the old-fashioned joy of going in and browsing their wares. Right now, stacked by my bedside are Winter in SokchoLaure: The Collected Writings and Burt Reynolds’ memoir, books I randomly spotted while waiting for my toddler to tire of face-planting into beanbags (it took a long time). I’d never buy these books in a million years and it’s unlikely I’ll even finish reading them, but that’s the point of borrowing books for free: I can read one page and it’s still worth it! There’s no downside, besides the fact I now know far too much about Burt Reynolds.

The library also has a film and TV collection to rival Netflix. In fact, it’s better than Netflix ’cause it actually includes movies and TV shows that were released before 1999. Want to watch Hepburn and Tracy in Adam’s Rib? The library has it! Garfield cartoons? That’s there, too! The CD section is a bit rubbish unless you love borrowing 30 versions of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and old Sesame Street soundtracks, but c’mon let’s not get greedy.

Librarians are also the nicest people on earth, quiet and gentle and helpful – at least until five minutes before closing time when they frantically start running around the library yelling at people to get out. Fair enough, librarians have fulfilling lives and library-dwellers are relentless. I think there would be no wars if the world was run by librarians, and the trains would definitely run on time.

With all they have to offer, it’s odd then that the main users of libraries are babies, students and tech-phobic grandmothers looking to print out emails at 8am. The rest of us should rediscover the public library’s infinite assets. In fact, take my credit cards because the most valuable card in my wallet now is my library membership. (Note: Don’t take my credit cards.)

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