This weekend I was one of thirty Bay Area authors feted and feasted as “Library Laureates” at the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library’s 14th annual gala dinner. Why was I so surprised by the enthusiastic, celebratory crowd of hundreds that had gathered downtown at the Main Library? Maybe it was a holdover from my childhood suspicion that the library — a place where they’d let you borrow their books for nothing, trusting that you’d bring them back — was a big secret, something you didn’t talk about lest it be discovered you were pulling a fast one and the whole thing was taken away.
The opposite, of course, is true: talking about and supporting our public library system is vital to keeping them open and their resources available – not just books but music and film and news and internet access, career counseling, art exhibits, readings and lectures, computer classes, and of course story time for kids. Maybe these figures about the 16,000-plus public libraries in the U.S. will surprise and impress you as much as they did me:
*Every year, Americans visit their library more than they go to the movies. Every day they borrow 2.1 million DVDs (for free, remember!), in contrast to the 2.2 million rented from Netflix.
*Every day 300,000 Americans get job-search help at their public library. There are 13,000 U.S. libraries offering career assistance (from career counseling to help writing resumes and filling in applications), compared to the 3000 U.S. Department of Labor One-Stop career centers.
*Nearly 12,000 U.S. libraries offer free wi-fi – that’s more than all the Starbucks put together.
*There are more public libraries offering free computer training classes than there are computer training businesses in the U.S.
In San Francisco this weekend, there was even more reason to celebrate: thanks to the passage of a massive city bond measure, the Branch Library Improvement Program created a plan to renovate or rebuild 24 branch libraries across the city. Fourteen of those branches have been completed and reopened, and another eight are now in construction, including my beloved neighborhood library, Golden Gate Valley, about which I feel rather pathologically proprietary, driving by slowly a couple of times a week and surveying the contractors’ modular trailers with a gimlet eye, part rubber-necking voyeur, part self-appointed inspector (Who’s the guy handing out Krispy Kremes? And hey, buddy – you better not chip any plaster off that della Robbia door frame!)
But we weren’t just celebrating our libraries. The Friends of the Library organization hosts this dinner every year to celebrate writers, feeding us filet mignon and toasting us with good wine and urging us to take home the rapturously beautiful table centerpieces at the evening’s conclusion.
It was humbling to say the least to know that you were surrounded by these incredibly generous, visionary folks who not only recognize how vital public libraries are, but back up their convictions with their time and their money. Their mission statement is worth quoting as a standard for community involvement:
“Friends of the San Francisco Public Library is dedicated to creating, stewarding and supporting a superior free public library system in San Francisco. We are committed to raising the standard of excellence of our libraries by funding programs and services beyond what’s allocated in the City’s budget. We believe in free and equal access to information for all.”
Raising the standard of excellence. Above and beyond. Needless to say I wasn’t the only writer who felt genuinely moved and honored to be included at this event. City Librarian Luis Herrera, one of my tablemates, suggested that when all the branches are reopened, we should have a city-wide celebration, and all the Library Laureates of past years would be invited to take part. He won’t have to twist our arms. One by one we each talked about how much libraries have supported us as places of inspiration, as practical resources, as mobile offices: Kathryn Ma talked about being a library “nomad,” visiting one branch or another depending on her mood. Joshua Braff, Allison Hoover Bartlett, Ethan Watters and Katie Williams all revealed that their books were written in libraries – in Ethan’s case, in the very room where we were enjoying our tangerine upside-down cake with blood orange syrup. Victoria Zackheim read from an essay by Malachy McCourt, who remembered “the miracle” of a Carnegie library opening in his boyhood town of Limerick. Here’s what I had to say:
“Libraries and books and the pleasure of reading have always been mixed up in my mind with sugar, with sweetness. That association started with my grandmother, a San Francisco schoolteacher who rewarded me with miniature candy bars when I was learning to read and write. We lived in Sonoma when I was small, when the town, too, was small, and the library was a stately red-brick building set in the middle of the Plaza, right across from my father’s law office and an Italian bakery that sold cinnamon pull-apart cakes. The library, it seemed to me then, was the biggest and most important building in the town, the Rome to which all roads led. They let you take all the books you wanted, bringing them back when you were done, and I was not quite sure I believed it at first.
We didn’t have many books at home. Books, I learned early, were precious things. My father had taken a job writing and editing encyclopedia entries while he was in law school, and that set of encyclopedias, devoid of any acknowledgment of his contributions, was housed with his law books behind glass in a barrister’s case. There was a set of Time-Life cookbooks nobody looked at but me, and I mostly looked at the pictures. I remember a hardcover copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, and my mother’s copy of Anna Karenina from before she was married, and a paperback biography of Jennie Churchill, the mother of Winston; I knew he was famous but I didn’t realize he wasn’t the same person as Alfred Hitchcock until a military history class in high school. My father’s oversized dictionary had its own its stand, and it was always left open, waiting to be consulted, like a magician’s book of spells, or the story of the world. That dictionary was my origination, my Genesis.
In Sonoma I rode my bike to the library every week to check out a stack of books, holding my breath at the circulation desk in case I was told I was too greedy; but the librarians always slid the entire pile back over the counter to me, and I sat cross-legged on the floor of the children’s section, reading on one of the rag rugs, light shafting through the arcing Palladian windows. I could pick anything, unrushed, unquestioned, any day, and as I sat with my books scattered around me, turning the pages of one after the other, the incense of hot cinnamon and caramelized sugar wafted over me through the open windows. How could anything ever be more delicious?
Much of my childhood was more bitter than sweet, but those afternoons at the library are some of my most tangible memories, that and crossing the street to walk home with my shy, lonely father at the end of his work day, my latest stack of library books piled into the basket of my banana-seat bicycle, my father stopping at the bakery on the way home, tucking his folded newspaper under his arm so he could carry his briefcase and the pink bakery box, its strings taut under his fingers.
Libraries and books and the words they protect are still precious to me, still imbued with sweetness, sometimes with the bittersweet, and always with the weight of importance. Even now when I think of how I feel while reading a truly extraordinary book, it’s the same feeling I get from eating the world’s best dessert: the rapture of words filling my mouth, the yearning for it to last. And I still feel that sense of wondrous awe, of being luckier than could possibly be believed, of getting away with something really great whenever I am in a library.
These days my library is the Golden Gate Valley Branch at Green and Octavia. A Carnegie project built around the same time my grandmother started teaching San Francisco first graders to read in the 1920s, the Golden Gate Valley Branch was designed to resemble a Roman basilica, a long narrow rectangle with a curved apse. Outside, the stone façade drips Beaux Arts, Italian Renaissance details – carved garlands, moldings, fluted pilasters. On the inside it’s full of light from the tall windows with their curved, arching glass – Palladian windows like those at the library in Sonoma – and the original corniced shelving is still intact on the walls all around. I love the dignity and solidity of it, and how the building was sited close to the street, with no imposing landscaping to render it less inviting: a treasure box found on the sidewalk, waiting to reveal all it holds to you.
I love this library so much that it has found its way into my second novel, just as Sonoma’s library has shown up in my memoir, Cakewalk. I’ll close with the thoughts of the fictional librarian who works at the Golden Gate Valley branch, whose feelings about what that library means to her are not so different from my own:
Her library. Her sanctuary, her temple. It even resembled a church. She said it sometimes deflectively, jokingly, but the truth was she meant it: that library was her religion, the books it housed and the words within them her one redeeming faith. She carried in her head scenes and sentences and images, the astonishment of recognizing herself in the worlds and words of others. The lines and metaphors accreted in her memory, coming back to her in unexpected moments with the same startling intimacy, like snatches of remembered conversations, or a taste indelibly recalled, a sweetness at the back of her throat, as when she’d first read them. To be there, to hold the books in her hands, was a kind of atonement, a word she used privately in its original sense, at one: a harmony, an accord, a reconciliation. A word she’d learned when she was small, standing before her father’s dictionary.”
When the Golden Gate Valley branch reopens next year, I’ll be there: that too will be an atonement. And I’ll bring the cake.