Many people regard libraries as a place to get something. You go, browse, and get books to borrow. For lots of other folks, a library is a place to do work, often in the form of research. Computers may have replaced card catalogues, yet the function is still the same. People come to libraries seeking information and knowledge. For those doing historical research, there is still the thrill of seeing the penmanship of those long gone on paper.
But for many people, the library is a refuge. No one stands at the door to take your money. The library is free as in free-dom. It doesn’t matter what your religion, race, or political persuasion is, everyone is welcome at the library, including the homeless. Librarians deal with the problems the homeless often present and are even guided by the Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness.com, which provides advice about how to deal with common issues. Sleeping/snoring, panhandling, delusions, too many bags, and even body odor are among the topics covered. The guide invites librarians to reduce problems and conflict while still being inclusive.
There are others with less obvious needs than the homeless who seek sanctuary in our libraries. There are the lonely. Go to any library and witness the number of older individuals who come to sit and read a newspaper, frequently because they cannot afford the ever-rising cost of subscriptions. Many live alone and have little or distant family connections. For them, a visit to the library may provide warmth their own homes do not offer and the sound of quiet human voices that comes from real people not televisions. It’s an opportunity to interact, make eye contact, and read, do puzzles, join a knitting group, all of which help their mental acuity.
Then there are the children who seek sanctuary at the library. Often mistaken for being bookish loners, very often kids are escaping a turbulent home life. A place where there are no drunken arguments, no frying pans flying across the room, and where the code of quiet gently enforced by librarians spells comfort and safety. Where help with homework is readily available and where books to escape from a troubled home abound. During my teen years, I often landed at the Noah Webster Library in West Hartford, Connecticut ostensibly to do a project for school. I lingered as long as I could, enjoying the respite from an adolescence I was finding very painful. Surrounded by books, my biggest problem was always which one to bring home with me. I would leave with a sense of perspective and knew that I could always return.
The library had a sense of peace and quiet similar to the Catholic Church I was being raised in, but without any requirements from me. I could read about competing theories and beliefs free to choice among them. No one was tugging on me. The library was the one place I felt I could be just me.
Have you ever found refuge in a library? I’d love to hear about it as we pay homage to libraries this week.