The library is a trap.
At the end of a hard day’s work you stumble into the library. “I’m only looking for one book,” you tell yourself. But that book isn’t there. Or even if it is there you find yourself, as if drugged, meandering aimlessly through the fiction aisles, the magazine racks, picking out a section of this, reading a page of that, carrying an item with you a few steps as if you might really check it out, take it home with you, take the time to delve into its mysteries, uncover its gifts, but always you backtrack as if you were on a slow-motion leash. You replace the book because you know in your heart that there is no time, simply no time for it all, to gorge on it all, every last sensation, 500 pages here, maybe only 100 pages there, to stuff yourself full of everything that you cannot bear to pass by, that you must, must experience, if not now then later, but if not now when? But you’ll go blind if you try, your eyes will fall out, you’ll have to read at least 500 pages a day and go faster faster faster with no time to digest, let alone savor, a single bite, like a food fiend at a buffet smorgasbord when the restaurant is closing. So cautiously you take a pinch here, a nibble there, a forkful there, mixing spices which don’t go together at all, and dashes of color that blot each other out in your benumbed yet insatiable consciousness.
Then it hits you. How long have you been here? What are you doing? Dazed, seated on the floor, you scratch your head and remember nothing, and with your last ounce of willpower, you drag yourself to the door.
One or two days a month I visit the library, spending a pleasant hour or so researching and browsing among the books and magazines.
One or two nights a week I visit other libraries. Each of these libraries is unique — some are grand edifices, some are rooms tucked away in houses or other buildings. I enter them in eager anticipation, usually drawn to a certain floor or room where I know there is an important book for me. I am awed by the collection, but the book I want is not in; or I can’t quite find it; or I see it, reach for it, and pull down a different volume; or the library is closing before I have time to find it.
Night and day are not that different. Waking or dreaming, I am still hoping to find the book, the words to give me the explanation that will fulfill me. The search is exciting, involving, and always futile.
I am a defender of subversion, especially the subversion of secrecy. It is this which so attracts me to libraries.
Information is the ruin of secrecy. By their very nature, libraries collect great amounts of information, both true and false. Because libraries have no fortress to defend, no biases, prejudices or opinions to protect, they intentionally present every conceivable point of view, every frivolous argument or profound thought in their efforts to remain forever neutral. It’s for you to judge what’s important. If the information you discover leads to knowledge, secrecy in that area is forever subverted, often destroyed.
The subversion of secrecy brings with it a certain sense of security in knowing that you can no longer be deceived. In subverting secrecy and hence ignorance, I hear the full cry — to paraphrase Harold Bloom of Yale University — of the human race. I thus understand why it is so important, why it matters so greatly to be able to read.
Louis C. Androes
My brother gave me a book he’d found while in graduate school. He passed it on to me to “work out the details.” It was written in 1937 by an Englishman, who tells of his experiments with a filter-lens system which enabled him to see auras. Special glasses were made by sandwiching two lenses with a blue dye in between. You’d look through the lens at a clear blue sky for a while and gradually your eyes became able to see auras around people accurately enough to do experiments. His work generated considerable data: on the effects of disease and magnets on the aura, and on physical parameters of the aura itself. But the whole system came to nothing because the dye was unstable, and in 1937 the lenses were difficult to obtain; they came from Germany.
I had a plan to isolate the complete mechanics of eye and lens and dyes and duplicate them with camera, film and filter. I had to find the exact chemistry of the dicyanine dye used in the lens and visual pigments so I could find a suitable film and filter. Off I went to the bright and shining public library and pulled out the 1981 Handbook of Chemistry that gives 1500 pages of compounds and their spectrums. Dicyanine, and the other dyes that had been used in the lenses, were not listed. At least not for me. They were all old trade names and not exact enough.
So I drove down to Georgia Tech, to my regular fourth floor haunts of chemistry and physics, checked the microfiche for TR659.39, and on the wall the index said such books were on the sixth floor. I went to the stairwell, having already climbed four flights, only to discover I was on the top floor. Back at the wall, the index clearly said sixth floor. Next I went to the other end of the building, to the doors marked “exit.” There was the stairwell leading down, and nothing leading up. It was Twilight Zone time, and it began to dawn on me that I was going to have to approach a stranger and admit that not only couldn’t I locate my book, but I seemed to have misplaced the whole damn floor.
I paced a bit and then picked out an isolated nerd who bobbingly comforted that I was not to mind, the same thing had happened to him, honk, honk, “Not so long ago.” I was directed to an elevator, as if the upper reaches were accessible only by special transit permit.
I reached the sixth floor of the library on a beautiful spring day at the beginning of the term, i.e., I was the only one up there, and unnoticed, wandered deeper and deeper into the stacks checking call numbers in total concentration, holding out my hand at times, for the ventilation system seemed to shake the building subtly and give me vertigo.
I don’t think Tech has added a book to its collection on dyes in the past thirty years. The area seemed quite forgotten. I was looking for The Chemistry of Coal Tar Dyes, and found it down on a bottom shelf. As I opened it, the pages fell out dry and yellow, 1924. There were only general comments, exact compositions were unknown, but rather “thought to be.” Searching on I found a family Bible-like book which had the trade names, all sorts of numbers, and finally the information that I sought: how to compound them, who originally did the work in 1857 and 1883, how they were used on photographic plates. This one that I wanted had the problem of causing “foggy images.” (Was the aura always there?) The year was 1928.
Perhaps you have to be familiar with how chemistry “feels” today to fully appreciate the strange effect the books began to have. Chemistry was different then, the words different, the researchers’ problems now unheard of even in descendent form. All the work and details seemed like forgotten, silent backwaters from the current of discoveries that carried on through today. Yet they were valid constructs in their time. And I began to feel the scientists in their world, the thick leather bindings and embossed goldleaf of their books.
I could see these gentlemen in black frocks and stiff collars, well trimmed beards, their lab benches of thickly varnished wood and heavy slate. I began to resurrect a world, feeling their minds, their curiosity, the solidness with which they built before our time of plastics. And then I saw the coming conflagration of world war. A blackness and a fire destroying the patterns of their world, destroying lives and redirecting hearts forever in a holocaust only I knew awaited these people whose thoughts I now so easily ran my fingers over. I’d searched for a filter to screen out the usual spectrum and somehow stumbled into another terrifying vision, as any scientist might while playing at investigation in some B-movie thriller.
We speak of making an impression, and perhaps that isn’t too far from the truth. Something must impress; each event precipitates another event. A hand swirling a glass flask, marking down ensuing observations in a notebook, each of these events fixes itself in space, precipitates somewhere in time, to assemble bit by bit a whole world which soon dissolves into another place and time. In the dim light and the turning of the pages, I realized that the flow through time is not dependent upon years, nor time travel confined to science fiction, but rather an event of consciousness. I came to understand how a world can be swept away, as we dream of other things and ignore the warnings of the distant thunder.
The vision was so clear I shook myself free of the books and ran out of there, ran down into the lobby, and from a phone booth tried to call a friend, only to get a recording. Calls were now a quarter. See how times had changed! So I fled out into the sunshine where students threw their frisbees, and walked along the sidewalk for a while, not knowing where to go or what to do, and thinking that perhaps it was just my blood sugar dropping once again. For you see, I am a scientist, and scientists always doubt their observations when they contradict what the intellect has already ordained. But too, scientists when stuck usually wander back and start digging in the stacks. In this one action lies such hope for everyone.
The library is my favorite place. It always was. I remember the incredible thrill of learning to read — when marks on paper suddenly, miraculously, became words. And I remember the wonder of going into the local library for the first time with my mother, and discovering that they would give you any book you wanted!
Sometimes I fear for libraries because I fear for books. Will they vanish along with big movie theaters, glass bottles, trees and songs without prepackaged visuals?
Libraries should all have stained glass windows.
Renais Jeanne Hill
For me, the library is the first and best sanctuary of the life of the mind.
This is partly personal history. I discovered Sherlock Holmes in the one-room library of a rural school, the Russian alphabet in a small-town Carnegie library, and the Beat poets in the library of our local university (I was a teen-ager with a new driver’s license at the time). Later that same library was a refuge on lonesome evenings, where I listened to Voznesensky on records and walked home through the woods, sometimes filled with poetry of my own.
When I took part-time jobs, libraries were the first places I looked. There I found people as interesting and admirable as the books they cared for, work whose purpose — even when the tasks were repetitious and boring — I could think of with pride. Now I’m a librarian myself.
Strange things happen in libraries. Lately, the ideas I need seem to pop up like helpful gnomes when I browse the shelves, even when I didn’t know I was looking for them. The last time it happened I wasn’t even in the stacks — just glancing over someone’s shoulder at a terminal screen and there it was, a book I needed very badly, but I had had no idea such a thing had even been written. Not many institutions foster that kind of experience. Despite — no, partly because of — its quietness and its systematic care of the records of human knowledge, the library is a cradle for the untried and the unanticipated, a dangerous and radical place.