A Library Card Changed My Life: Reflecting on National Library Week

Reflecting on National Library Week

            I have worked in a public library for nearly 6 years, but I still rely on Twitter and other social media to remind me when National Library Week is. Instead of reviewing the series of graphic novels I’ve been plowing through this week, I’ve decided to write a reflection post on how the public library has impacted my life.

Some time in 1998 or 1999 when I was about 4 or 5, my mom took my younger brother and me to the library. This wasn’t a surprise or something uncommon. The three of us often went to the library two or three times a week to pick out armfuls of books and one or two VHS tapes. This visit to the library was different though, because this time, instead of heading straight toward the children’s section, my mom marched us up to the front desk where the library staff sat, ready to answer questions, look up books, and, of course, check out materials.

My mom declared that my brother and I would be getting library cards today.

   And so we did.

Although my first library card snapped in half after an unfortunate trip through the washing machine when I was 12 or 13 that little piece of plastic brought me so much joy and a sense of what responsibility truly was. I remember the librarian handed me the library card and a Sharpie so I could write my name in the little box on the back of the card. My mom offered to write my name for me once she finished writing my brother’s name on his card. However, I was (and still am) my mother’s stubborn child, and insisted on writing my name by myself. She gently reminded me that Sharpie was permanent, and we wouldn’t be able to fix it if I made any mistakes. I brushed off her warning and very proudly wrote my name.

Did I make any mistakes? Yes.

The card read ‘Sylvia’, but the S and Y were backwards. The rest of the letters were correct, so I guess for the most part I did fine. But by the time I was 8 or 9, I was a bit embarrassed handing the card to the library staff, fearing they would think I didn’t know how to write my own name properly.

Although the memory itself is a bit hazy, I can still vaguely remember the McDowell Branch (a few years after this memory, the library would be torn down, rebuilt, and given a new name). McDowell had two floors. My mom had told us that the second floor was for adults (it was where all the adult books were, after all), and the first floor was for the children. It wasn’t uncommon for her to walk my brother and I to the children’s section, remind us not to go off with strangers (a warning that more applied to my overly social brother who would probably invite himself into someone’s car. I, on the other hand, was petrified of strangers and hated being separated from my mother), and to be quiet while we looked for books. We never argued, as we both knew if we disobeyed her, it was our father we would have to deal with. She would then remind us (more me than my brother) that she would just be upstairs for a little bit to find books for herself.

While we waited for our mom to finish finding her books, my brother and I would make ourselves comfortable with our stacks of books. McDowell had plenty of comfortable seating, although we both managed to squeeze ourselves on the baseball mitt – shaped chair while we flipped through books.

When our mom came back, we would make our way to the front desk, check out our materials, and wave goodbye to the kind library staff who knew we would be back in a couple days.

While McDowell was being rebuilt in the early 2000’s, we went to another library branch that had already been updated (our library system encompassed 17 branches and 1 main library at the time and from the late 90’s to early 2000’s, all the branches received makeovers). The staff at this branch was also very friendly and helpful, but I was branch sick for our normal location. I was (and still am) a child of routine and hated (and still hate) having it interrupted. To this day, I’m still trying to have a more “go with the flow” mentality, but it’s proven to be quite difficult.

Flash forward.

Eventually, we were no longer able to go to the library 2 or 3 times a week because my brother and I were fully in school and my mom had gone back to work. My grade school had a library that the class went to once a week, but we were only allowed to check out 1 book – which was quite disheartening to me as I was used to leaving the library with my arms full of books.

We still went to the public library at least once a week, and I enjoyed that the librarians encouraged me to take as many books as I could carry – even as my mom cringed at the words.

During the summer, we were mostly able to resume going to the library multiple days a week, mostly because my grandma took my brother and I while our mom was at work. Our grandma loved the library because the air conditioning was constantly blasting and she preferred the cold to the sticky, summer heat that clung to our house since our AC wasn’t nearly as strong.

I would browse books, my brother would play on the computer, and our grandma would make herself comfortable in the overstuffed chairs with a couple books and a magazine. The library opened at 10, we got there around 11:30, and stayed until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. For me, it was heaven. Plus, I was able to read so much that I often won the summer reading challenge for my age group. For some kids in my class, going to the beach was the highlight of summer vacation. For me, it was the spending hours in the library and the summer reading challenge.

Late middle school and junior high were less than ideal years (but really, who actually enjoyed going through puberty and all the bad skin, mood swings, and awkward everything that comes with it?). On top of that, I found myself at the mercy of my classmates. I was pushed down at recess, made to eat by myself during lunch, made fun of, and left without a partner during group activities.

During a science lab, a classmate even cut off a few inches of my hair while I was working.

Home didn’t feel much better than school. For some reason (puberty, I assume), I couldn’t get along with my parents – especially my mom. Everything was a fight. My grandma, the same one who drove my brother and I to the library every summer, was having a rough surgery, and my Dedo (grandpa) had been diagnosed with cancer. Our wonderful dog, Marley, was nearly 17 and was clearly not going to live much longer. It was a lot of overwhelming emotions that I didn’t know how to handle.

I found comfort in the library. The staff always greeted me with a smile and an excited “hello”. They asked what I was reading, if I had read anything notable lately, and praised me for being such an avid reader. The teen librarian, who I adored, even recommended a book to me. A personal recommendation. I felt so honored and happy for the first time in a very long time.

As always, I had my arms full of books to check out. My mom urged the teen librarian to tell me to put some of the books back. The librarian refused.

“But she has no friends,” my mom argued. “She only has books.”

The librarian just smiled and assured my mom I would be fine.

Oddly enough, hearing that I would be fine was what I held on to for the rest of junior high. My grandma ended up having a successful surgery, my Dedo beat cancer and has fought it successfully several times since (he’s alive and doing amazing now), but we did lose Marley right out the time the book Marley and Me was adapted into a movie. I cried for days after coming home to find that my life-long friend was gone. My mom had adopted Marley, an abused mutt from the pound, a few months before I was born. When my parents brought me home from the hospital, she set me down with Marley and the two of us napped together, already best friends.

High School.

From 2009- until graduation in 2013, I attended a Catholic college prep school. It boasted a high graduation rate and demanded a great deal from its students. It was also a bit of a drive, and when I got my driver’s license my junior year, it was expected that I would drive my brother and myself to school. A license surprisingly came with a car from my Dedo. It was a blue-ish/purple 2003 or 2004 Mazda hatchback. It was covered in scratches, patches of rust, and dents, the headlights barely worked, and the exhaust pipe was hastily held up by a coat hanger. I loved that car that I named Sloan. My dad tried covering the rust with duct tape and painting over the tape, which only made the car look more hilarious – in my opinion. But I loved that car and thanked Dedo and my parents over and over.

“You got the license and the car, huh, Syl?” Dedo mused one Sunday afternoon after we had finished Family Dinner.

I nodded eagerly. “I love it!” While some of my classmates had been gifted much nicer, newer, truthfully safer cars, I still thought my car, my Sloan, was the best car on the road.

“I think you’re missing one more thing though,” Dedo continued, ignoring my excitement.

I stared blankly at him. I had a license and a car. What else did I need?

Dedo easily read the confusion on my face and chuckled. “Tell me, kid, how’re you gonna put gas in that car?”

Gas. Something that cost money. A lot of money. It was well over $3 per gallon at this point in 2011/2012. The drive to school was a little over 20 minutes. The drive home was often about 30 minutes because of the traffic.

I continued to stare blankly at my grandfather, who looked beyond amused.

“You need to get yourself a job,” he declared. “Ain’t no one responsible for putting gas in that car except you.”

So I got a job.

It was a fast food job. I lasted 4 months before I came home in tears (as I often did), declaring that I couldn’t handle working 6 days a week for 7 or so hours at a time, while also trying to keep up with my honor’s and AP homework. It was too much.

My mom suggested applying at the library, a place I rarely went to anymore because of school and work.

I laughed off the idea, but she insisted on me filling out an application anyway.

So I did.

            When I handed my application to the manager, one of the librarians not-so-quietly, told her to star my application and keep it on top, as I had been a frequent patron with them since I was a little girl.

Soon enough, I was working as a student assistant in the same library I had frequented for a great deal of my life. There was no longer a desk barrier between the staff and I. We worked closely together, and I got to know the other student assistants and we quickly formed lasting friendships. High school graduation was a year after that, and I soon found myself in college asking the age old question: “what am I gonna do with my life?”

While organizing books on a to-shelve cart, I expressed my dilemma to one of the children’s librarians.

“I thought I wanted to go into the medical field, but I can’t. I know I don’t have the strength you need to work in a hospital,” I told her miserably. “I love helping people – that’s all I wanna do, but I don’t know how.”

I was somewhat interested in teaching, but not enough to make it my life’s work. My major was in communications, and although I knew I could do a lot with it, I wasn’t sure what sounded appealing.

“Do you like the library?” The children’s librarian asked.

That was an obvious answer. “Yes.” I didn’t see what her question had to do with anything.

“Why not be a librarian? You’d need to get a MLIS, but it’s doable. There are so many different kinds of librarianship. I think you’d be great at it.”

The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. I wanted to help people, I loved books, and I cared about my community. While in my final semester of my undergraduate degree, I applied for graduate school for Library and Information Science. Getting the acceptance letter was the best day of that semester, next to college graduation.

While librarians don’t make the most money in the world, the impact they make on their local communities can’t be denied. I’ve worked in a suburban library branch, an inner-city branch, and I’ve subbed everywhere in-between. The communities are all different, but the purpose of the library doesn’t change. Books, movies, CDs, local information, documents, scanning, faxing, printing, seed share programs, story times, snack programs for kids and teens, green screens, photo boxes, recording studios, passports, and genealogy are a few things offered at my library. The possibilities seem endless, and the library staff work tirelessly to ensure that all library services are accessible to everyone.

During National Library Week, I like to look back and remember the day the librarian at McDowell handed me an orange, plastic card. My library card granted me access to thousands of books. I’ve lived more lives than I can count, explored worlds without leaving my room, and expanded my way of thinking in more ways than I can count.

I’m dead serious when I say that I don’t know where I would be without my library. When I felt so alone, the library was there. The nonjudgmental staff brightened my days with cheerful conversation and many book recommendations. I can only hope that I can continue what those librarians started and make every patron feel valued and safe in the library.

It sounds dramatic, but my library card, my library, and the librarians impacted my life and saved me from my own inner demons more times than I can count.

If you can, take a trip to your local library this week. Sign up for a library card. Browse the shelves. Take it all in and enjoy.

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Love, always,

Syl

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