My Life in Libraries

Last night I learned that our local library has had to cut its hours, again. Such are the times, people might think; belts are tightening everywhere. It made me feel desperate, and profoundly sad. Libraries have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

That I feel centered and at home in a library stems from my childhood in San Diego Public Library System, specifically the Central Library, downtown. The Central Library was a big, beige four-story city block of a public-service building. To this day I remember the layout of each floor: the newspapers, reference desk, rare book room, microfiche. The second floor public restrooms were always a dicey venture, as they served as the primary toilette to the area homeless, and this was the 1970s. But it is from this library that my familiarity with, and comfort from, libraries grew, from the the dark green binding tape to the solidly built, beige laminate tables and the slight grooves in the flecked marble stairs. It was a monument to order and protocol, and I loved it.

Although I have years’ worth of memories in this building, the room that plays the biggest part is the Children’s Room. As my mother worked downtown, I logged a lot of hours in the Children’s Room, killing time until she was done. It was a huge room, and I was usually the only one there. There were a lot of activity stations—record players and headsets, a puppet show area, a story time mat—although none of them ever in service when I was there, save for the record players, where I listened to many recorded stories. I also got flashed  a few times in there, most memorably by some fellow who dropped his pants and started dancing in the aisle where I was reading. And some other fellow shook his fist at me from the doorway. He was big.

The Pacific Beach branch, the local near my house, was connected to the junior high school and surrounded by giant, ant-infested Hibiscus plants. By lending me Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the PB branch is responsible for my future aloofness and fascination with fey English gentry. Much like exposure to violence at young age can have a negative affect on a youth, exposure to too much 1930’s British literature ruined me for this world. The reading of Waugh and Forester, as well as my mother’s devotion to Noel Coward and fans of Judy Holiday musicals made me realize that I was actually Sebastian Flyte reincarnated into the unfortunate body of a 14-year-old girl with braces and a bad haircut. My true destiny was to wear white linen, nurse a small drinking problem, and study at Magdalen. And I blame the PB Library for this life of frustrated identity.

Another pivotal library for me growing up was the main library at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). I don’t quite know why, but I would drive the half-hour it took me to get there to study for the smallest thing. It was like the huge mound of dirt in Close Encounters (it kind of looked like that too). In hindsight I realize that the trance that fell over me when I studied there was due to the white noise of what must have been a monstrous air conditioning unit. There were also a lot of college boys at that library, and I found that awfully interesting as well.

College. What better place for a girl to get her library on than in college? I went to Columbia University in New York City, and it has a lot of libraries and reading rooms and nooks and stacks and carrels. I studied, a lot, and became expert at finding the perfect place for my mood: serious studying? the balcony in Butler Library’s reference room. People watching? The Butler main reading room. Cute architecture students? Art History library. Needed a nap? The nook behind the periodical room. Need a cry? Deep in the bowels of the stacks. Plus, I was doing research for the Columbia Encyclopedia at the time, and my queries took me to parts of libraries my studies normally wouldn’t.  In fact, I met my college boyfriend over the Catholic Encyclopedia. Literally. I think we were both reaching for the volume with St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

My favorite Columbia library though was the C.V. Starr East Asian library. It was always freezing, which made me focus, and the vibe was always very serious. Lots of polished wood, stained glass, green glass lamp shades. Starr library had no pretense; it was as if it knew you had come to college to study, and had been waiting patiently for you to realize that as well. It was a grown-up library that made you respect that you were, in fact, a grown up too.

After college, I continued with the Columbia Encyclopedia, but had difficulty synching with the public library system in New York. As is the case with many things, the New York libraries were tougher and less embracing than the California libraries, and certainly more so than those of a cloistered private university. This could have been a projection, though, of my general feelings of being a new citizen of the city with no one but me watching my back.  In no time, though, I found my stride, moved to Brooklyn, and carried on into the glamorous, jet-set world of reference book publishing. It is a cliché, I realize, that every young girl dreams of working in dictionaries; she giggles with her friends and fantasizes about what she could do with that etymology if they’d just give her a chance! Well, Reader, I was no different. All those years in libraries made me miss the smell of old bindings and the skitter of silverfish.  Poor man’s grad school, reference book publishing.  But back to libraries.

In the late 1990s, I found myself in England; Oxford, to be exact. There is probably no other place in the world as exciting for a library-loving medievalist with British public school homosexual ideation issues. I vowed to visit the library and chapel of every college I could manage to get in to, and I pretty much did. I even snuck into some random building at Magdalen College to see what it might have felt like to be a student there, perhaps bumping into the ghost of Wilde and Bosie in the hallway. Despite my considerable cunning, I couldn't penetrate the Bodleian, but I did pick up a nifty poster in the gift shop. 

It was the Merton College library (right) that completely transfixed me. It has been a functioning library since 1373! (The Hundred Years' War! The Black Prince!) I asked the porter if I could take a look at the library and he unlocked it for me and I got to wander around by all by myself, surrounded by centuries worth of manuscripts and Latin and study nooks. I still remember the strong smell of wood. Nerd heaven.

Today, libraries still play a vital part in my life, through my son. Our local library—the Windsor Terrace branch—is the beating heart in the neighborhood. Not only are there books, of course, but classes, games, tutoring, a RIF program.  It is a community center, a place for kids to come after school and feel safe, and feel safe around books, and find safety in books. For my son, it is a place of joy and of wonder that will always be there for him, I hope, in the way that libraries have always been there for me. If I had all the money in the world, I would pour it into libraries and to make sure their doors would remain always open. That would be my small part in saving the world.


  1. Megan--I read with interest your post on your San Diego library experiences. I work for the San Diego Public Library Foundation -- an org working to raise private funding for the libraries from your past. I know the lifelong impact Libraries made on you as a youngster hold true today -- as they do for your son. I wanted to let you know that San Diego is getting close to building a new Central Library to replace the building you seemed to have a love-hate relationship with. This June, the City Council will decide to move forward with efforts to build a new facility that can be built without touching funds to operate the other 35 branch libraries in the system. Like the NY library system and systems throughout the country, San Diego's library is facing financial difficulties impacting hours and collections. However, through creative, unique financing, San Diego can move forward with a much-needed new Central Library now without impacting General Fund expenditures. I thought you might like to know and you can visit www.supportmylibrary.org if you want to see more.

  2. Thanks Charlie! I am glad to hear there is support for libraries in SD. Will the new library be on the same space, across from the post office?

  3. No. The current location cannot house a larger facility. Additionally, there is limited transportation access and no parking. The new facility is at the corner of Park and 11th, about a block from the PetCo Park. It is right on the light rail line and at a bus hub.

  4. http://www.good.is/post/how-to-save-your-local-library/

  5. Hi Mega,
    I truly loved this essay and your appreciation for libraries. Clearly, like me, you are a librophiliac!

    Peter Thomas Senese